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Images of Ferguson: An Examination of Institutional Racism and Social Justice
December 22, 2014

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American 18-year old youth, who was killed by a white police officer on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, was an event of tragic significance and a catalyst for both local civil protest and national debate. After the shooting, protests and rioting lasted for over two weeks in this racially divided city of over 20,000. The death incited violence and intense debate about race, class and access to social justice in the United States, both historically and today. Ferguson provided an example of how racism has affected public policy and the actions of law enforcement in a particular community, and has fueled national discussion about the continuing impact of racism in our modern society.

Social workers across the county are grappling with how to best address the root causes of institutional racism and find ways for individuals, communities, organizations and governments to bridge the deep divides. To further explore this challenge, Rutgers School of Social Work integrated discussions about racial inequality and social justice into the curriculum, as well as larger events spearheaded by faculty. A portion of all core classes was dedicated to a discussion of the events in Ferguson and student awareness and action around the larger issue of institutional racism has been encouraged.

“The events in Ferguson remind us of the inequalities in our society, and the great difficulties we have in acknowledging and responding to racial injustice. As social workers who support the family and the community, we must challenge ourselves and our profession to not be silent on these issues. The New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Social Workers has established a Diversity and Affirmative Action Plan which states that culturally competent, culturally sensitive practices should be infused in all of our daily approaches. We must address key issues that involve race and class, such as the overrepresentation of racial groups in foster care and prisons. As social workers, we should be at the forefront of change,” says Cathryn Potter, dean and professor.


As of a 2010 census report, 67.4 percent of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are African American, but only three of the 57 total police officers on the force are African American. Ronald Quincy, professor of professional practice for the School of Social Work, traveled to Ferguson during the unrest and spoke about his experiences at an event for students, faculty and staff.

“Ferguson residents very much feel that they are living with a 21st century version of Jim Crow laws and that they have little recourse for their situation. They are not poor, but rather middle income, and the issue is not one of poverty but of institutionalized racism. There is a sense of lack of empowerment that is reflected in their low voter turnout, with less than six percent of registered voters participating; and thus underrepresentation among elected officials,” says Dr. Quincy. The events surrounding Michael Brown’s death fueled an already perceived prejudice by the legislative and law enforcement community toward African-Americans in the town. Each unfolding step of that warm August day seemed to further disrespect the community.

“Citizens saw law enforcement leave Brown’s body on the ground for over four hours and they felt that was a micro-aggressive psychological message for their community. They are committed to the search for psychological empowerment in their home community,” he adds.


“We are Ferguson: A Social Work Call to Action,” was held on October 8, in the student lounge. The program was guided by Social Work faculty Drs. DuWayne Battle, Ronald Quincy and Lenna Nepomnyaschy, and organized by Laura Curran, associate professor and Antoinette Farmer, associate dean. Faculty led a conversation about the events of Ferguson, situating them in a local and national context and discussing the ways in which social workers can take social action.

Nepomnyaschy provided a vivid explanation of how institutional racism still occurs nationally in areas of housing, employment and criminal justice. In regard to employment, a study found that when equally matched job applicants sent out resumes, white applicants received a response 33 percent of the time; Latino applicants 25 percent of the time, and African-American candidates only 15 percent of the time.Even when white applicants had a criminal record, they were still more likely to be contacted for the job than African-American applicants with clean records.

“In housing, research has shown that blacks are two and a half times more likely to be denied mortgages and they are more often offered subprime loans than are equally qualified whites. In the criminal justice system, there is a one in three chance that a black male will go to prison in his lifetime compared to a one in 17 chance for a white male,” says Nepomnyaschy.

In speaking to the student group, Battle reflected on an experience he had assisting at a middle school where an act of violence had occurred. As he spoke to the young students, one boy said, “Violence is a way of communication.”

“When people don’t have a grasp on ways to more effectively communicate, they use the language of violence. This is where institutional racism and violence intersect,” says Battle. Battle emphasized that social workers “cannot separate from the fabric of who we are” and must use their role to respond to institutional racism.


In the classroom, social work students have been introduced to issues of race and social justice. In one class, faculty played a NPR podcast about the historical context of Ferguson. Instructors teaching Research Methods used video clips to show students the arbitrary nature of discrimination. In the Management and Policy (MAP) concentration, which trains social workers to lead social service organizations, faculty and students discussed the responsibility of social work managers and leaders to address the underlying issues raised by the events in Ferguson within the context of the organizations they lead and manage. In the Diversity and Oppression classes, students watched a YouTube video of children from the Ferguson community and discussed the NASW-NJ Diversity and Affirmative Action Plan, which was drafted in response to the NASW National Call to Action regarding institutional racism.

Students at the SSW event asked many articulate, searching questions, trying to come to terms with these challenging issues. Some spoke of the Michael Brown case, while others addressed larger issues, such as the all-encompassing nature of social injustice, from racism to lack of political power.

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