Social work’s anti-racist journey

Social work has come a long way in recognising the racial diversity of the workforce and of service users

Social work has come a long way in recognising the racial diversity of the workforce and of service users since the 1970s. But there are still hurdles to overcome, writes Dr Gurnam Singh (pictured).

On the surface the social work profession appears a beacon of light when it comes to ethnic diversity and equality. From being an almost totally white profession in the mid-1970s the evidence suggests that social workers from ethnic minorities are well represented within the profession.

And perhaps, most notable of all is the apparent transformation of social work education, once criticised for its biased Eurocentric rendering of black people, where non-white minorities were either ignored or constructed as inherently pathological, we now see a wide body of literature on questions of culture, diversity, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice.

In terms of straightforward statistics, the General Social Care Council’s annual report on social work education for 2009-10 showed students from ethnic minorities made up 21% of enrolments on the social work degree.

Yet while one should not in any way play down these achievements, there is a danger that the mere employment of black workers could simply result in the relocation and unmasking of racism.

If enabling people from ethnic minorities into the profession was the first step, then the next and very much unfinished task is to change the culture of organisations. Within social work education there appears to be much unfinished work, such as the probability of a student achieving a social work qualification being significantly lower if students belong to ethnic minority categories.

Under achievement

The association with ethnicity and under-achievement doesn’t stop there. People who negotiate their professional training and enter the profession tend to languish in the lower strata of the organisation, and senior managers from ethnic minorities are still a scarce commodity. While it does not necessarily follow that this disparity is a result of institutional racism, from personal experience alone, I find it difficult to think what other explanations there can be, other than those that seek to racialise or stereotype black people.

I was born and raised in Bradford to a Punjabi Sikh family. As one of a handful of black social workers entering the profession in the early 1980s, and having gone on to become an academic, I have had a front-row seat in witnessing the experiences of ethnic minority students and workers in a wide range of settings.

Despite seeing and experiencing much pain, such as racist abuse from colleagues and service users alike, the good news story is that the struggles of so many black and white social workers committed to tackling racism have created a legacy of anti-oppressive practice becoming the norm.

One such example is the Social Work Action Network (Swan), that is attempting to re-focus the somewhat abstract concept of anti-discriminatory practice towards a much clearer model of anti-racist practice. To that end, Swan is holding a conference in the autumn entitled Whatever Happened to Anti-Racism, and SWAN member Kish Bhatti-Sinclair has written a book, Anti-Racist Practice in Social Work.


Some have argued that multiculturalism, instead of facilitating social justice and ‘tolerance’, has led to a perpetuation of cultural stereotypes. Yet at a time where health and welfare outcomes for minorities continue to cause concern and where BME workers are still fighting to be appropriately valued by the organisations in which they work, now is not the time to abandon commitments to fighting racism.

We have come a long way and there is much to celebrate. In doing so we need to avoid both complacency that implies that racism will simply evaporate over time, and a pessimism that fails to recognise progress.

Dr Gurnam Singh is principal lecturer in social work at Coventry University

Special report on social work and ethnic minorities

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