eBook: The Biggest Social Justice Issues of The Decade (2010 – 2020)
Members of society who are not represented in the public majority – whether ethnically, racially, religiously or in their physical abilities – continue to face diverse and pervasive challenges. They may not have the same access to education, ability to vote, or fair representation in a court of law – and they may need social workers’ assistance to help level the playing field fairly.
In this section, we will briefly highlight:
• Vulnerable groups in society affected by the civil rights and inequality.
• Structural racism and civil rights leadership.
In 2017, the concept of “civil rights” has expanded beyond its 1960s connotation, that this issue applies mainly to racial justice questions. Now the discussion includes questions about freedom of religion and the right to personal and civil liberty – and sometimes these can be at odds.
Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
Under protection of the U.S. Constitution, civil rights are protective measures enacted by the government to ensure that all citizens are treated equally, while civil liberties limit a government’s infringement upon the rights of its citizens, explains the Independence Hall Association.
For example, debates over immigration and health care issues have also started to invoke civil rights concerns and comparisons. Several self-described “religious freedom” laws have been introduced in states and municipalities across the country, which essentially permit business owners or officials to refuse service to individuals based on their religious convictions.
Activism and Social Work
Many of the most vulnerable groups in society affected by the civil rights movement – including those who may be discriminated against based on race, color, sex, disability, religion and national origin – are those that social workers are most likely to engage with.
Minority populations are disproportionately represented in the populations that social workers typically work with – such as the homeless, those who are part of welfare systems or prison populations, so social work is a profession that works within the framework of civil rights and racial justice issues on a daily basis.
There is no question that issues of residency, health, safety and security intersect with civil rights laws and pertain directly to the well-being of families in every social worker’s caseload.
As employees of the state or publicly funded non-profit organizations, the path to becoming a radical social worker fighting for structural change may result in conflicts of interest. That said, it’s not impossible to be a social worker and effect social change through activism.
Throughout history social workers have played key roles in civil rights movements. Ralph Fertig, a professor at the USC School
of Social Work, helped formed the Freedom Rides to protest racial inequality in 1961. Dorothy Height, a social worker at the YWCA, worked alongside the “big six”of the 1960s civil rights movement and later became a women’s rights activist.
Race and Justice
In their Statement on Attacks on Individual and Civil Rights, Michael Francum and Cynthia E. Harris, the president and executive director, respectively, of the NASW’s DC Metro chapter write:
“Structural racism, more than individual acts of hatred and bigotry, destroys the collective humanity of all Americans. It engenders fear and stifles potential – furthermore, it harms the mental health of our nation.”
According to Francum and Harris, racism can be found in all systems that social workers support, including public education, health and mental health, criminal justice, mental health care, criminal justice, child welfare, unemployment and elder care.
African-Americans account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population yet they comprise 24 percent of Americans fatally shot by police. In a survey conducted by Harvard University, researchers found black people were 87 percent more likely to have been kicked, tased, or pepper-sprayed; and 305 percent more likely to have had a gun pointed at them.
The struggle for equal treatment under the law is well-known among minorities in this country. In the past few years, longtime civil rights leaders including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) have protested many forms of discrimination against African-Americans.