To paraphrase a line from one of Joe Biden’s speeches, I know too well that the task at hand, to say something reassuring and uplifting about the current state of our world, is beyond my capabilities. But, as you all know, social workers try to do the impossible in the name of making the world a better place—even when it feels as if we are blindly reaching out in the dark. So here goes.
A once-in-a-generation pandemic shuttered and isolated us into our own worlds, creating a tragic toll of death and illness as well as economic havoc that will leave no institution untouched. With this as a backdrop, we witnessed the latest round of gruesome and unconscionable deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police. I for one, am sickened by the cruelty of George Floyd’s murder and a sense of shame that—as with the deaths of so many other Black people at the hands of law enforcement--I had not done enough as a member of the white race, to prevent it.
But, as clinical social workers, imparting hope is indeed our superpower. The world is not broken but instead is breaking open, and in ways that are inevitable and necessary.
People of all races and in many nations are taking to the streets, and polls from Monmouth University and elsewhere suggest that now more than ever, the general public finally acknowledges systemic racism and supports the primary political movement of our time, Black Lives Matter. Citizens from all walks of life are calling for the radical restructuring of police departments, and New Jersey’s very own Camden, a city that, in the recent past, had fired and replaced its’ entire police department, is serving as a model for that restructuring. Cops are kneeling with protestors, and politicians like New Jersey’s Governor Murphy and Mayor Baraka of Newark are marching alongside them. Some police officers (in Camden again) are serving ice cream to protestors. Ice cream is the solution for many problems, but systemic racism is not one of them. However, these collaborations of people of all races and between police, protestors, and lawmakers give me hope that we can move beyond fleeting gestures toward real and lasting structural and social change. Now more than ever, we are called to recognize our common humanity and to manifest the mercy and compassion denied Mr. Floyd when he begged for it. Finally, we might be seeing the long-awaited take down of arguably the most divisive president in our nation’s history.
Close to home, at the DSW program, we work hard to ensure that our environment is welcoming, and our curriculum is inclusive, but we can do better. Though we engage several instructors of color, we will redouble our efforts, and also draw more heavily on the literature of Black scholars. Knowledge is power, and by adding to the knowledge-base, scholarship provides an effective way to make one’s voice heard. We will work even harder to ensure that our African American and African-descended students add their much-needed perspectives to the body of social work scholarship. As director of the program, and on behalf of the faculty, you have our word that we will continue these efforts and build upon them.
We can do better, but as students, so can you. Now is the time to look deep inside yourself, especially if you are white, to identify your prejudices and their effects. Like all forms of evil, racism can be subtle and insidious, leading us, (for example) to uncritically overgeneralize knowledge based on white viewpoints, samples, and clients. Support, and listen to your fellow students of color, not to relieve your own white guilt, but to make sure their voices are heard because you need to hear them. Black students and scholars-in-training must recognize that now more than ever, people are listening, and this opportunity brings with it a grave responsibility to build and disseminate knowledge born of your vital yet long-overlooked perspectives. Use the tools we are imparting to answer this important call.
As clinical social workers, hope is perhaps the most powerful tool in our tool box. I remain optimistic that the current turbulence, necessary and long overdue, is a pathway to a brighter future. Please join me in creating and looking forward to that future.
Michael C. LaSala, Ph.D., LCSW
Director of the DSW Program
School of Social Work
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
390 George Street, 6th Floor
New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901
Pronouns: He, his, him
“Everything will be OK in the end. If it's not Ok, it's not the end." John Lennon