In the wake of a very fruitful and energizing conference on 12 Grand Challenges that social workers are tackling in order to promote a more just and equitable society, our sensibilities are jolted by two fatal and questionable police shootings of black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte, North Carolina that remind us that life in the United States can be very different experiences depending on the color of your skin. We must ask ourselves what policies could emanate from our Grand Challenges work that might have prevented these tragic events? Otherwise, our efforts could overlook critical factors in the lives of many of the individuals, families, and communities most impacted by the social ills we seek to redress.
I am certain members of the immediate families of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, their friends, and neighbors are experiencing agonizing trauma and there are probably social workers on the scene helping them to cope. Charlotte residents have taken to the streets after this latest incident—the sixth fatal shooting by police in their city in 2016—to vent their anger and rage that another individual’s life has ended at the hands of police. However, these shootings are affecting people throughout the country—particularly people of color who know that any of us could well be the next victim in an encounter with the wrong police officer. As a teenager, I had a gun drawn on me by a police officer whose hand was shaking. He stopped me because I was wearing a black leather coat. This was shortly after a nearby hardware store had been robbed. I was taken to the store—which is illegal—and fortunately for me the store owner said I was not the suspect.
Most police officers are well-trained and qualified but some are not. The vast majority of police officers are honorable public servants who often put their lives on the line to serve and protect the communities they patrol. Many of them are underpaid and go about their work not looking for accolades. So it would be unfair to say that police departments are inherently racist. However, there are some officers who are not psychologically fit to be authorized to use deadly force. Then there is a culture of being protective in some departments that allows their bad behavior to be excused. That is when policies are needed to ensure that the public interest prevails. These policies could mandate screening standards and racial sensitivity training.
In the case of Mr. Crutcher, we have seen video recordings from several angles that suggest his shooting was unwarranted. Cooler heads have prevailed in Tulsa as his family has publicly pleaded for calm. In the case of Mr. Scott, the local authorities have not released video from the bodycams and car camera that could shed light on two very disparate accounts of the incident. The police say he had a gun. The family says it was a book. However either of these cases are adjudicated, the bottom line is these men would not have been shot if they were white.
Social workers need to have a sustained conversation about race. It cannot be a symposium, or a teach-in, or even a conference. It will not be easy or short. It could take years. It is not that social workers are going to find the magic formula to eliminate racism in America, but it will be a discussion about what our profession should be doing to ensure that people of color are treated equally in the United States. That the color of one’s skin should not constrain one’s ability to realize his or her full potential. We need to take a hard look at what is discussed in our classrooms and the messages we project to the larger society. Perhaps this is a job for University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work Dean Larry Davis and REAP—a consortium of race, ethnicity and poverty centers. I am willing to put my time and skills toward this work.
I will admit that I have been hesitant to address racial issues with this blog. I have been conscious about CRISP not being labeled a black organization. I strongly believe that the pursuit of social justice is about more than race and that any efforts to pursue a more just society has to be multiracial. I am thankful that Pat White, the director of the Fund for Policy Education and Practice, has not been reticent about affirming that the coalition’s work address policy through the lens of race, equity and social justice. I will admit to giving not much more than a nod to her statement in the past, but these latest incidents have shocked me out of complacency. People are dying and communities are hurting. This is serious business and we need to get moving in a hurry. If social workers cannot address race in a meaningful way, who will?
Written By Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D
Addressing Race—Another Grand Challenge for Social Work was originally published @ Charles Lewis – Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy and has been syndicated with permission.