Practicing Anti-Racism in Social Work: A Guide

Social workers are constantly faced with a wide range of social work issues and are responsible for helping their clients navigate challenging life situations. As such, social workers, more so than many other professionals, have the opportunity to effect change in the individuals, communities and institutions they work with. This is particularly important when it comes to issues of racism and white supremacy in our country. Explore our guide to practicing anti-racism and promoting social justice and racial equity through social work. 

What Is Anti-Racism? 

Anti-racism is a process of actively identifying and combating racism. Anti-racism requires ongoing action. The goal is to become aware of racism in all its forms and actively change the beliefs, behaviors and policies that perpetuate racist ideas and actions in individuals, institutions and systems in order to create an equal society. 

Ibram X. Kendi, race theory scholar and author of “How to Be An Antiracist”, offers this anti-racism definition: “I define an antiracist as someone who is expressing an antiracist idea or supporting an antiracist policy with their actions. And I define an antiracist idea as any idea that says the racial groups are equal.”

Institutional Racism and Social Work

Just as racism is ingrained in our country, it is rooted in American institutions within American institutions and systems—and racism has “therefore affected social work ideology and practice for generations,” according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). “The mission of social work is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” 

NASW notes that the child welfare system has often been harsher on Black, Brown and Indigenous families. In addition, medical racism persists and results in health disparities and health care inequities while the consequences of other social work issues, including mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the school-to-prison pipeline, have worsened economic inequalities in communities of color. According to NASW, “Social workers have had roles in perpetuating these harmful social systems, and this history cannot be ignored.” At the same time, “social work also has a major role to play in creating an antiracist society.”

Individual Racism vs. Institutional Racism

Most people can identify examples of individual racism. Whether it’s someone on the street using a racial slur to refer to a person of color, an inappropriate meme being circulated on social media or even a white gunman shooting parishioners of a Black church, instances of individual racism tend to be overt. 

Institutional racism, on the other hand, may not be as obvious. Also known as structural racism, institutional racism in America can be defined as the perpetuation of inequality in institutions throughout our society, including schools, the court system and financial establishments. This “built-in” racism can affect entire racial groups.

A common example of institutional racism is “redlining,” a form of financial discrimination that describes the denial of home mortgages to otherwise creditworthy borrowers because of their race or where they are looking to buy a house. Other examples of institutional racism can be seen in our criminal justice system: Minorities are arrested and imprisoned at higher rates than others

How To Combat Oppression and Discrimination in Social Work

Social work is a profession that is committed to helping and advocating for oppressed and disadvantaged people and fighting injustice in society. According to NASW, “Social workers have an ethical duty to dismantle racism, both personally and professionally, and to demonstrate what it means to be antiracist.” 

Social work ethics and values are spelled out in the NASW Code of Ethics. Using that as a guidepost, social workers can begin or continue their social justice social work with these actions:

  • Confront their own racism. Given that 60% of social workers in the United States are white1, issues of white privilege must be addressed. Ways to do that include professional training and education, conversations with colleagues and ongoing self-reflection.
  • Support community initiatives. Find your local NASW chapter to connect with action groups in your community working toward achieving equity.
  • Encourage legislators to enact just laws. One way to help advocate for anti-racist policies and meaningful social change is to work to get better laws in place. Consider signing up for NASW Advocacy Alerts.
  • Commit to organizational change. In July 2021, NASW hosted a national town hall with leaders of major social work organizations to report on their anti-racism efforts within social work practice, education, research and regulation. You can watch the recording of the NASW Town Hall Series on Racial Equity: Undoing Racism on YouTube.

How to Practice Anti-Racism at the Micro, Mezzo and Macro Levels

Social workers work to create change using three interrelated scales or scopes of practice: micro, mezzo and macro social work. Anti-racism practices can be integrated into daily practices by following this framework. 

Micro Anti-Racist Practices

Family therapy and individual counseling fall under the micro social work category. Social workers have the opportunity to confront their own internalized racial bias toward others in these settings by self-reflecting on racial incidents they have experienced, considering their personal history, power, and position, and by identifying opportunities for change. 

Mezzo Anti-Racist Practices

Mezzo social work involves working with neighborhoods, institutions or other smaller groups, such as the staff of schools, hospitals, community centers and prisons. Anti-racism work in these settings might involve identifying unjust norms and working to address them as a group. This may look like calling out racism when you see it at home or at work in a productive, non-judgmental manner or joining an anti-racism book club.

Macro Anti-Racist Practices

Macro social work focuses on the big picture and the prevention of societal problems. It encompasses practices like social work research, community-based education and social justice initiatives, policy analysis and advocacy, and nonprofit administration and leadership. Macro-level social work involves using influence and privilege to dismantle racist practices and policies, such as by calling representatives to support and promote racial equity and the advancement of marginalized people in your community, city or state. Other opportunities might include participating in elections, petitions and protests promoting racial and social justice.

Additional Anti-Racism Resources

There is a wide range of anti-racism resources available to social workers, students and anyone committed to being anti-racist. This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a starting point for social workers interested in anti-racism work.  

Organizations Working on Racial Justice

  • The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is “committed to ending racism through public education, social justice advocacy and professional training,” as stated on its Racial Equity page, which offers resources to assist social workers in their anti-racist efforts.
  • The nonprofit American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) works “in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.” The ACLU has been at the center of many major civil liberties battles in the country for more than 100 years.
  • Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. The mission of this global organization is “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”

Anti-Racism Articles

There are several insightful anti-racism articles for social workers and the stakeholders they collaborate with. Here are a few: 

Anti-Racism Podcasts

Anti-racism podcasts are a convenient way to stay up to date on all things social justice and social work. Here are some recommendations:

  • Code Switch is an NPR podcast discussing how race affects every part of society. 
  • Seeing White is a 14-episode Scene on Radio podcast exploring the history of race and white supremacy in America.
  • Pod Save the People is hosted by organizer and activist DeRay Mckesson, who explores news, culture, social justice and politics with analysis from fellow activists and experts. 
  • About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge features key voices from the last few decades of anti-racist activism and the recent history that led to our current politics.
  • Pod for the Cause aims to help spark conversation and activism on some of the most critical issues of our time, including criminal justice and voting rights. 

Looking for more than just podcasts? “SWCAREs: Social Work So White with Rachel Cargle” is a webinar that discusses white supremacy in academia, the role of white womanhood in oppression and how white saviorism harms the clients of social work practitioners. 

Anti-Racism Books

Here are a few books that can help social workers learn more about racial equity:

Last updated August 2021.

1 NASW. “Social Workers Must Help Dismantle Systems of Oppression and Fight Racism Within Social Work Profession,” August 21, 2020. Accessed on August 16, 2021. https://www.socialworkers.org/News/News-Releases/ID/2219/Social-Workers-Must-Help-Dismantle-Systems-of-Oppression-and-Fight-Racism-Within-Social-Work-Profession