How does social work regulation perpetuate institutional racism?

The lack of reference to anti-racism in social work standards and the over-representation of practitioners of colour in fitness to practise require urgent action. But so far Social Work England has fallen short, argues Wayne Reid

No Racism sign being held
Photo: Giovanni Cancemi/AdobeStock

By Wayne Reid, BASW England professional officer, social worker and anti-racism visionary

This article represents my personal perspectives and not the views or sentiments of my employer or any other organisation, nor those of other social workers or people of colour.

The Black Lives Matter movement casts a revealing spotlight on how white supremacy permeates society and influences policies in ‘modern institutions’.

In this article, I outline how social work regulation perpetuates white supremacy. My premise is that “morality cannot be legislated, but behaviour can be regulated” (Martin Luther King).

Since George Floyd’s killing, I’ve reported widely on the lack of protections and support for social workers of colour; their over-representation in fitness to practise cases and their disproportionately negative outcomes on assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) programmes.

The coverage and prominence of anti-racism in social work in recent months has been inescapable. However, the silence from Social Work England and MPs is perplexing.

Standards that discriminate and oppress

In a previous article, I emphasised my disappointment that: “neither [the] education and training standards for 2019 or 2020, nor the professional standards for social workers, explicitly refer[s] to anti-discriminatory (ADP), anti-oppressive (AOP) or anti-racist practice (ARP).”  And: “Their omission in social work regulation is a travesty of social justice in itself.”

Yet they are considered as accepted wisdom – even though they implicitly convey that “white is best.”

I’ve commentated widely on how many social workers of colour feel unsupported during fitness to practise investigations. Indeed, their statistical over-representation implies the current standards overtly dominates and punishes them.

At best, the standards are non-racist (or neutral/colour-blind), but definitely not anti-racist. Due to the omissions of ADP, AOP and ARP, I conclude that central aspects of the education, training and the professional standards in social work are inadequate and unfit for purpose. Perversely, the standards risk being perceived as tools wielded to discriminate against and oppress social workers of colour (and, consequently, people of colour who use services).

Disproportionate representation in fitness to practise

Community Care articles (from February 2021 and March 2021) have reported on the “delays in fitness to practise processes having ‘life-changing impacts’”. Social workers of colour are over-represented in these cases. Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume they are being disproportionately affected by the delays.

Another article (from July 2020) cited the lack of ethnic diversity within the Social Work England workforce. Confidence is not instilled when there is no transparency about how this is being addressed/reversed. I’ve previously queried whether this was being treated as a priority, as this could be mistaken for pigmentocracy rather than meritocracy  – but I’ve had no response.

Also, I’m concerned that Social Work England has only, and just recently, employed one person to manage all its equality diversity and inclusion (EDI) activities, both within the organisation and across the profession.

I do wonder how incidents of racism (and other forms of discrimination) have been (and are being) properly resolved. My hope is that Social Work England will make this a priority, with improved partnership working with BASW and myself on related matters.

Patiently waiting for action

In collaboration with allies and colleagues (inside and outside of BASW England), I’ve amplified the voices of social workers of colour in OUTLANDERS. I’ve published an anti-racist social work framework and outlined readily deployable strategies.

I’ve developed a comprehensive ‘anti-racism in social work’ presentation and delivered it at nearly 100 online events internationally since May 2020. I founded the BASW England Black & Ethnic Minority Professionals Symposium (BPS), which is a multi-talented network of professionals across England.  I’ve created a repository of anti-racism resources, which is utilised by many social workers, organisations and stakeholders across the UK. Here is my ‘anti-racism in social work’ portfolio.

OUTLANDERS

OUTLANDERS: Hidden narratives from Social Workers of Colour is an anthology of essays, stories, poems and other miscellaneous works – which I co-edited and compiled in collaboration with Siobhan Maclean.

I’m proud to have been involved with OUTLANDERS and the richness and uniqueness it exudes. The profits will go to the Social Workers Benevolent Trust (SWBT). At the time of writing, the book has sold over 1,000 copies and raised £1,000 for the SWBT. As far as I’m concerned, OUTLANDERS is a legacy piece of social work history and literature.

Despite my prolific work in this area, I’m disheartened not to have been approached by Social Work England or responsible MPs to explore my anti-racism in social work solutions. I fear losing any momentum we have.

I remain patiently waiting for any opportunity to progress this work meaningfully. Admittedly, I’m crestfallen, because I do not want to interpret the lack of responsivity as denial and rejection of my knowledge, expertise and lived (personal and professional) experiences.

I don’t wish to appear populist or journalistic in my observations, but I genuinely don’t know whether some of the senior personnel at Social Work England are unaware of my work or just ignoring it.

I would prefer transparency and to be told that my efforts are not in accordance with their perceived vision – if that is the case. I recognise there are minefields and pitfalls in embedding anti-racism in social work. However, my door has remained metaphorically wide open for months.

Those who govern the profession’s policies must do more than just be seen to acknowledge the advent of another social justice celebration (eg Black History Month, Holocaust Memorial Day etc).

These occasions are often met with bland blogs (if it all).

There is rarely accountability, substance or, more importantly – action.”

Lack of proof of intent

My intelligence feels insulted when I read, in Social Work England’s statement of intent on equality, diversity and inclusion, that this is deemed to be “core business”, when no actual proof is presented or when ‘anti-racism’ is only mentioned once within the entire document.

This can easily be mistaken for brazen performative allyship. Just so we are clear, suppressing racism does not mean racism does not exist.

Sadly, none of the anti-racism in social work activities that I’ve been involved in have generated endorsement or support from Social Work England.

I sent an invitation for Social Work England representatives to view an online presentation I was delivering at the Anglia Ruskin University last month. Unfortunately, I did not receive a reply. I shared a draft version of this article (with my portfolio and presentation) to offer them the right to reply and/or shape the final versions. I received the following reply:

“[We do not wish to make any comment at this point.]  We will continue our dialogue with the sector more broadly, as well as various representative groups within it, on all matters relating to equality, diversity, and inclusion (including anti-racism) as we continue to develop our work and approach. The strategic conversations we are involved with at a national level will also drive conversation and change.  Good luck with the article and your portfolio.”

I’ll continue working effectively with organisational leaders and relevant stakeholders nationally to integrate anti-racism into social work at every level. I will genuinely engage and collaborate with authentic allies and professionals who want to improve the circumstances of social workers of colour, as well as those receiving services – people who are honest about where they (and their organisations) are at on their anti-racism journey.

Social work remains institutionally racist

Sir William Macpherson (RIP) coined the term ‘institutional racism’ when reporting on the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1999.

In 2019, Ibram X Kendi (in his book ‘How to be an Antiracist’) suggested substituting the term ‘institutional racism’ with ‘racist policies‘.

I understand and appreciate both positions and their contemporary relevance to social work.  My previous article on this received widespread agreement (and acclaim) from my peers.  However, sadly, it failed to generate any response from Social Work England – the very institution responsible for policy changes in social work.

I’m pleased the chief social workers for adults and children & families have acknowledged previous shortcomings in the leadership of the profession and re-emphasised the importance of anti-racism.

Hopefully, this will involve the workforce race equality standards (WRES) they have developed, which are being rolled out in 18 local authorities, becoming mandatory and universal across the profession (with a sense of urgency) and supplemented by other national initiatives from key social work stakeholders and policymakers.

Black human rights activists are rarely welcomed by ‘the establishment’. The obstacles social workers of colour face are simply the latest manifestations of what people like me have battled against continuously for centuries. I remain convinced the two main obstacles to progress are ignorance and ‘wilful blindness’.

Let’s not forget, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”.

‘One world, one race… the human race!’

As always, thanks for reading. The full version of this article is available here.

Mapping anti-racism in social work post-George Floyd 

The anniversary of George Floyd’s killing is on 25 May. I want to map the anti-racism activism that has taken place across social work since then.

I want to showcase the strides being made in the profession and spotlight where the ‘anti-racism deficits’ exist.  Please send me any evidence you have, such as: articles, flyers, group activities, posters, virtual events, statements, updated guidance/policies/procedures etc to protect and support social workers of colour.

Contact me at wayne.reid@basw.co.uk or @wayne_reid79 on Twitter to give your accomplishments a platform. I’ll do whatever I can to promote organisations that are really serious about  anti-racism in social work. The closing date for submissions is 14 May 2021 at 5pm.

16 Responses to How does social work regulation perpetuate institutional racism?

  1. Anonymous April 9, 2021 at 3:43 pm #

    It is important to mention SWE like to pick on males also as well as race. Their Triage team do not know what they are doing. They will take on any case without checking it out properly and the social worker is left in this mess of an investigation at least months and months or over a year. Finally it will come to nothing BUT the social worker capitulates during this waiting period and their career is over. Takes the wind out of them, belief and motivation. It is a cruel process and SWE really do not care at all. That is the truth of it.

  2. Jocelyn April 9, 2021 at 7:12 pm #

    Truly sad how Black social workers are left behind. White social workers climb the ladder and are in positions of power , making decisions about Black families lives.
    Black social workers are victimised when we speak out against racism.

  3. John Stephenson April 9, 2021 at 9:44 pm #

    I have been saying this for years,it is one of the biggest un-investigated scandals worse than the Met Police and it is ongoing .I put in an f.o.i. request to H.C.P.C . requesting a breakdown of conduct and capability proceedings in terms of ethnic backgrounds.They replied to me they did not record the ethnic background of the cases they heard.
    If some enterprising solicitor should read this I suggest they investigate how many capability conduct cases are conducted against practitioners from an ethic minority.This is the most unjust prejudicial system I have ever encountered and in it’s operation it is mired in discriminatory practice

  4. Elaine April 10, 2021 at 11:40 am #

    One on the long standing problems is that the individuals that are defining what anti-racist, anti oppressive and anti discriminative should look and feel like, have never had to experience these marginalisation. When treated in such a marginalised manner, it is not just a one-off event or series of events. It is an energy and cellular memory that remains with you for life. The memories are frequently triggered through being in certain environments like the workplace.

    • KLee April 14, 2021 at 6:19 pm #

      I agree totally with this. This has long been a problem for me, including with this education and racism. I understand how empathy can be expressed but the real experience is missing and with this the inability conveying the hurt and the bleakness being a minority within the field can hold.

  5. Rose April 10, 2021 at 12:45 pm #

    I was almost canned into this racist three way meeting by a racist manager and her deputy during my ASYE year in Essex and without wasting time, I resigned my position. Today am better off.

  6. The Watcher April 11, 2021 at 8:54 pm #

    It’s simple – Social Work England DO NOT care about anti-racism! Why would they? Look who is in government! So, what next?

    • Zerish April 13, 2021 at 5:23 am #

      Thank you for this insightful article . I agree with the content as black professional thev lack of strong inclusion of aop and adp values leaves certain black or bame social workers who seek to address such issues in their practice utterly in the grip of fear. Hence I am up at this hour. There is no mechanism to address our concerns in the institutions that we work. I think no one cares about antiracism because the organisation seek to destroy those who do….

  7. Elizabeth April 12, 2021 at 7:58 pm #

    I totally agree with your views, the working environment for Black workers is traumatic. This everyday trauma is not acknowledged and black workers is forced to live through this experience every day.

    Even when we managed to achieve management level, we are constantly been undermined by white workers challenging our decision making.

  8. Olu April 12, 2021 at 8:46 pm #

    What’s next is we’ll burn ourselves with righteous indignation while the ones with the power commission yet another survey, another report, have another consultation and when we are cinder the next generation will experience the same racism, the same sly put downs, the same patronising drivel. Social work in the hands of the current buteaucrats incapable of achieving change let one becoming anti-racist. The struggle is out in the communities we live in, not in committee rooms or universities or tokenistic crumbs or bribes of Empire medals or career advancement reframed as kicking odown doors. Class solidarity not the dead end posturing of groupthink. As somone more elequent than me says “racialised identity does not inherently predetermine your politics”

  9. Ruth Cartwright April 13, 2021 at 11:09 am #

    Thinking back over my social work career and training (full disclosure: I left social work in 2014 for the church), we seem to be moving backwards as far as anti-racist principles are concerned in wider society and in social work (evidenced by the CRED report which denied the existence of institutional racism and selectively chose its evidence to minimise the issue). I undertook my SW training in 1984-86 and the notion of anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice was just coming to the fore – not before time of course, but social work was a leading profession in this area and its willingness to examine the inbuilt prejudices (unconscious bias) we all have. It’s sad to read that ‘neither [the] education and training standards for 2019 or 2020, nor the professional standards for social workers, explicitly refer[s] to anti-discriminatory (ADP), anti-oppressive (AOP) or anti-racist practice (ARP).’ If the excuse is that it is assumed that SWs and their employers will practice in this way because we are all so enlightened now, a) that is not true, and b) if it is true, there’s no harm in stating it anyway.

    All strength to Wayne!

  10. Anonymous April 14, 2021 at 7:03 pm #

    Whilst I agree with a lot of Wayne Reid’s article and celebrate all he has done regarding challenging racism and looking to embed anti-discriminatory polices within Social Work practice surely without knowledge and research into what the Fitness to practice hearings entail it is impossible to say if over representation of any particular race, gender, or other protected characteristic is indicative of racisim or discrimination.

    As someone somewhere on the Transgender spectrum does it matter if transgender individuals are under or over represented in Fitness to Practice Hearings?
    Personally I’d say all that matter is that the Hearings are only held if there is a legitimate reason for them.
    If one year 100% of hearings were involving Transgender individuals this would not in it’s self indicate transphobia if 100% of the case’s referred and having legitimate practice concerns involved a Transgender Social Worker.
    Yes work may be required to see if a reason could be identified why there was a higher than expected volume of referrals but in itself the over representation alone should not be a reason to ascertain Transphobia.

    If we as a profession and society are not careful we’ll allow the Government and Media to continue to make us feel it necessary to divide ourselves and the people we support and work with up into smaller and smaller groups and not see that we are all humans and are all equally valuable.

    As a profession we should be challenging discrimination were necessary but not through assumptions or making allegations of it without clear evidence.
    We should also be more vocal and continue to challenge the greater societal difficulties such as government policies inflating the cost of living and the cost of basic human rights such as adequate housing that affect everyone where possible.

    • Jan Corker April 15, 2021 at 8:34 am #

      Dear Anonymous, that’s a strange rationale you have. It might be helpful for you to re-visit what the concept of ‘over-representation’ is and re-visit the EVIDENCE within the article…

  11. Santi April 15, 2021 at 2:56 pm #

    I think Anonymous asking for robust evidence to advance the argument is not strange at all. I would suggest asserting PoC are overepresented in fitness to practice, in this article at least, is just that: an assertion. One of the source materials cited is based on a miniscule sample that actually cites white staff too. Given the cultures in social work I would not doubt the claim, but the two articles referred to are not good sources. I struggled to get through my ASYE and was subsequently investigate for FtP after I won a local grivience case. My experience was horrendous and racist but I wouldn’t put myself as evidence that Colombian men in their late 40s are overepresented in these proceedings. I think that’s all Anonymous is saying.

    • Jan Corker April 16, 2021 at 9:29 am #

      I think you would be correct not to “put yourself as evidence” Santi, as that refers to just 1 case. The EVIDENCE cited in this article refers to x2 articles from Community Care following an FOI request. A bit different I think…

      We can quibble about what you (and anonymous) accept as ‘evidence’, but are you both denying that social work is riddled with racism? If not, what’s your point?

  12. Santi April 16, 2021 at 5:38 pm #

    Two articles 9 cases, 2 white.

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