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A Message from Dean Cathryn Potter: Charlottesville, Social Work, and Patriotism
August 18, 2017


Some things go without saying. Or at least, that is what we are lulled into believing. Nevertheless, every American generation has defining moments; clear opportunities to patriotically defend the core of our nation’s ideals. This is such a moment in our history.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (United States Declaration of Independence)."

Did Thomas Jefferson fully understand or live up to the meaning of the words he penned? Did America take another century to abolish slavery? Was it not until the 20th century that women were also given the vote? Did the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s represent the first real attack on Jim Crow society that perpetuated the remnants of slavery? Did McCarthyism follow on the heels of the successful battle against fascism and Nazi ideology? Has our history of oppression of sexual diversity been shameful? Do we have much work to do as a people? Of course. America never fully lives up to the ideals upon which it was founded, but that is not the story. 

The American story is about how we strive to do so. Boldly and righteously sometimes and haltingly and cowardly at others, but ultimately striving to “bend the arc of history toward justice.”

Let’s be very clear about a few things. The white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies we saw on display in Charlottesville are supremely un-American. There is no question about this. To argue that there are two equal sides is akin to arguing, as it was indeed argued historically, that Civil Rights advocates and the KKK held equally valid points of view about America. Or perhaps to argue that German Jewish people and the Nazis were just two groups of good people with different ideas.  Americans have fought against fascism in its many forms during our history, because fascism is always incompatible with democracy and with the ideals of our country.

Social workers stand firmly against the alt-right agenda. Social workers resist ideologies and agendas from neo-Nazis, white supremacists, homophobes, misogynist anti-feminists, those who denigrate any religion, all hate speech and actions, and indeed any un-American attempt to separate human beings from their unalienable rights. Social workers are always called to resist in ways small and large. 

Two stories have been with me during the past few days. First, during the election season, I was impressed with Khizr Khan, the father of the deceased soldier whose story of carrying extra copies of the U.S. Constitution to give fellow Americans was so powerful. It matters not what party he supported; he stood for the Constitution. Please take the time to read our Constitution and its amendments, along with the Declaration of Independence. Along the way, take a look at the NASW Code of Ethics. This is who we choose to be as Americans and as social workers. 

Second, during a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. the year that it opened, I remember clearly reading the names and occupations of some of those designated as righteous, non-Jewish people who acted to rescue Jewish people, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. To my eye, there were a disproportionate number of social workers named there, and I was humbled and proud to be a social worker. 

May we never see dark days like those during the Holocaust and our own slavery and Jim Crow history. May we also be clear that a new holocaust, and the subjugation of non-whites and those not attuned to an alt-right ideology is precisely the goal of the alt-right. Their goals are un-American. Many have died in resistance throughout history, including Heather Heyer last week in Charlottesville.

Choosing resistance is unsettling and frightening, but our profession chooses social justice, and freedom has always required defenders. This is one such time in history. We are professionally and patriotically called to each find our way to “bend the arc of history toward justice.” 

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