Why Social Work Needs to Double Down on Critical Race Theory
Laura S. Abrams and Alan J. Dettlaff
The current backlash against teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in educational settings requires social work to take a strong public stance in favor of CRT as an analytic tool that contributes to racial justice and to oppose censorship.
Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic theory rooted in legal studies, provides an analytic framework to acknowledge and address systemic racism. CRT challenges the liberal myth of colorblindness in law, policy, and discourse, and in doing so, argues that racism is far from an exception or an extreme form of hatred, but is rather an ordinary experience for people of color. CRT maintains that policies and discourses rooted in White supremacy treat various racial groups differently in the service of upholding racial hierarchies that maintain White privilege and keep other groups divided. CRT hence argues that while race is a social construction, racism is pervasive and systematic; and thus addressing “prejudice” or “individual attitudes” is not sufficient to interrupt racism. In a time of concerted reckoning with anti-Blackness and systemic racism, this theory applies widely to understanding and disrupting institutional racism, including in social work.
CRT and multiple forms of Critical Race Studies (CRS) had remained relatively obscure until fall 2020, when then President Trump used an executive order to ban the use of CRT principles and key language in federally funded programs, including acknowledging “White privilege” or implying that United States is “an inherently racist or evil country.” Since then, and despite President Biden’s reversal of this order, CRT has become a media stomping ground for much of what is “wrong” with left leaning racial justice movements that challenge the status quo. Critics and pundits have even labeled CRT “racist” for naming White supremacy and White privilege and for challenging the myth or ideal of colorblindness. The Heritage Foundation calls CRT “divisive and damaging.” Conservatives are weaponizing the very definitions of racism in order to shut down racial progress, using fear and spin tactics to sway public opinion. Even more frightening is the pace at which state lawmakers and boards of education are banning the teaching of CRT as “racist” and “anti-American.”
To us, this movement is nothing more than a backlash against racial justice and the movement to make Black lives matter. It is the both denial and gaslighting. There is an absurd resistance to even acknowledge the legacies of slavery, genocide, colonization, and anti-Blackness that are woven into the “American story.” As in the Trumpian rejection of the “1619 Project” and replacement with the “1776 project,” the cancellation of CRT is nothing more than a power grab to replace the truth with a version of American history that maintains the sanctity and legitimacy of White supremacy itself.
The current movement to ban CRT is nothing more than backlash against racial progress, a blatant denial of the truth, and fear of power shifting away from Whiteness.
So what does all of this have to do with social work?
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in May 2020 led to many critical and much needed conversations about social work’s role in perpetuating and confronting racism and anti-Blackness. With few exceptions, social work has not thoroughly acknowledged our racist history or our complicity in the racist outcomes that our profession produces. Over the past year, social work has been faced with growing awareness of the pervasive harm and severe racist inequities that exist in many of the systems we inhabit, including prisons, policing, immigration detention, and child welfare. The profession has begun to reckon with our support of these institutions, and many, including us, have called for the profession to take stronger action towards dismantling these institutions. However, if social work educators are prevented from or afraid of having conversations about racism for fear of backlash or censorship, these needed conversations may end, and social work will easily slip backwards to maintaining the racist status quo and perpetuating further harm.
Lawmakers in several states (including Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Arizona) are formulating or implementing plans to ban CRT, and public universities are affected by these state laws, as in the case of Idaho. On the horizon, boards of private colleges and universities will likely consider similar bans. The downward spiral of this censorship is that many of our own social work programs could face a gag order on teaching the very tools of analysis that will allow us to meet the new National Association of Social Work (NASW) and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) standards around anti-racism for practice and education, respectively. Censorship will only set us back. Now is the time for social work to take a strong public stance in support of CRT not just for our own education, but for K-12 more broadly.
We need to be able to name and understand the many dimensions of racism and White supremacy that are deeply embedded in the systems and institutions in which we operate in order to dismantle them.
CRT is one of the primary lenses that social workers need to examine our racist foundations and our current complicity in producing racist outcomes. Moving us past the myth of multiculturalism or meritocracy, CRT provides the foundation for the critical conversations and needed changes our profession must begin to undertake. Now is the time for our leaders to double down in public support of CRT and against the censorship that is threatening progress toward racial justice.
Laura S. Abrams is professor and chair of the Department of Social Welfare at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Alan J. Dettlaff is Dean of the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston and the Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair.