February 28, 2017

Race, class, and the role of social workers in racial justice

Summit panelists, from left: Larry E. Davis, Carmeann Foster, Marika Pfefferkorn, and Jessica Toft.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 edition of Perspectives magazine.


"It's time to move beyond the feel-good stories of diversity and talk about the real issue of disparity." Keynote speakers Larry Davis issued this challenge during the Field Practice Institute's Fifth Annual Summit on Emerging Issues in Social Work Practice.

Hosted by the St. Catherine University–University of St. Thomas School of Social Work, this year's topic focused on engaging the profession in dialogue and action on racial justice.

Dean of the University of Pittsburg School of Social Work, and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems, Davis is considered a leading scholar on race and social justice, and is the author of Why Are They Angry At Us? Essays on Race.

During his remarks, Davis painted a stark picture of income and racial disparities in the United States. The top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. The bottom 40 percent combine for a paltry .3 percent. Factor in race, and the disparity grows.

"Black Americans earn only 60 percent of the income of whites, and hold approximately one-twentieth of the net worth of whites," said Davis.

By 2050, non-whites will outnumber whites. Now more than ever, it's critical to address racial disparities and work toward solutions.

"Racism is America's defining social problem. By not addressing this, social workers are ignoring the elephant in the room," said Davis. The good news is that the profession has the greatest capacity to impact change.

"We have more boots on the ground than any other profession. As social workers, we are committed, more than any other profession, to work with low-income people and fight for social justice. But we must not be afraid to talk about race and class."

Panelist Carmeann Foster '08, MSW'12

From personal to professional

As a mother of four African American boys ranging in age 2–6, racial justice is a deeply personal issue to Carmeann Foster '08, MSW'12.

"My life's work is devoted to making the world a better place for my sons," she said.

Foster founded and leads Rebound, Inc., a nonprofit serving young African American males involved in the juvenile justice system. She also recently landed a prestigious Bush Fellowship, through which she will investigate the most promising, culturally specific interventions for youth, complete her Ph.D. and grow her leadership network.

She spoke at the summit about the over-representation of African American youth in the criminal justice system.

Nationally, African American youth make up 60 percent of those incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. In Minnesota, the story is much worse. In Hennepin County, where Foster lives and focuses her work, 71 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system are African American.

"That's not including other ethnic groups. That's just African American youth," said Foster. "So ask yourself, in a state where African Americans make up less than 10 percent of the population, how does this happen?"

Some thought leaders believe this is a result of school policies like zero tolerance, but Foster argues that the deep disparities started earlier.

"In the era following slavery, we needed to redefine race relations in this country, and as a result, ended up with racialized policing strategies," she said. "Many people think this applies only to adults. But unfortunately in this country, black children are not seen as children — so we end up with things like 14-year-old George Stinney, who in 1944 became the youngest individual ever to be executed in the U.S."

The more our nation's power structures and systems are threatened by a growing minority population, the more we avoid making real and lasting change. Foster attributes this to integrated or symbolic threat theory.

"We've been holding on tight to the status quo for so long, and the subconscious of our systems have become so racialized, that it's no longer a matter of conscious decision-making. It's in the DNA of our systems," explained Foster.

With this in mind, she challenged summit attendees to critically examine the effectiveness of common social service approaches and how they impact communities of color.

One example she cited was evidence-based practice, which can sometimes make assumptions based on narrowly-focused subjects who are often white. This "outsider" research produces ethical challenges.

"Research is only as good as the subject you are researching. Evidence-based practice often neglects the nuances of being a kid of color in the U.S.," she added.

Marika Pfefferkorn Marika Pfefferkorn

Addressing racial disparities is also deeply personal work for Marika Pfefferkorn, the second panelist at the summit. She and her older brother come from an ethnically mixed family — American Indian and African American. She was very light skinned, or "ambiguously ethnic," while her brother presented as "black."

"We had two things in common: we are both energetic, creative, active learners. Those traits were encouraged in us as young people, but they were not welcome in the spaces where we attended school," she explained.

From the time he was young and "chubby-cheeked," Pfefferkorn watched as her brother was labeled a troublemaker. He was suspended numerous times for behavioral problems before their family learned that he had dyslexia.

"I took the path to college, while my brother took the school-to-prison pipeline," she said.

Today, Pfefferkorn serves as director of the Minnesota Educational Equity Partnership, where she leads the Minnesota Black Male Achievement Network. She works with school districts to develop policies, address interventions, measure progress and adapt approaches to improve outcomes for students of color.

Like Foster, she has seen first-hand the systemic resistance to change — specifically, the refusal to accept the realities of the school-to-prison pipeline.

"For so long we were told, 'If we only had the data, we need the data to confirm this story.' So we brought the data, and it was ugly, but that data still could not compel people to change the way they operate."

Currently, she's building a coalition of lawyers, parents and students to elevate the impact of school discipline on academic outcomes. The coalition is advocating for a shift in education funding from SROs (school-based police) to social workers.

"I invite you to join me in taking that risk in finding ways, both personally and systemically, to interrupt the system and school-to-prison pipeline," Pfefferkorn asked summit attendees.

Shank, Davis, Roloff and Sullivan at Summit School of Social Work Dean Barbara Shank, keynote speaker Dr. Larry E. Davis, St. Catherine University President ReBecca Koenig Roloff '76 and University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan.

​Racial Justice and Citizenship

"Racial justice should be at the heart of social work practice," said Jessica Toft, associate professor of social work and president of NASW-MN, during her opening remarks at the summit.

Toft described the tenets of citizenship, and its four universal rights and obligations: civil, political, social and economic. However, the racial underpinnings of mass incarceration have resulted in a significant percent of African American people losing these rights.

"Once you are involved in the correctional system, you are permanently, for the rest of your life, relegated to second-class citizenship status as an African American," Toft quoted Michelle Alexander. "We need to understand this [phenomenon], not as a psychological issue, not as a behavioral issue, but as a political issue."

Part of the challenge in restoring rights is access to appropriate social services. While there are numerous social services that respond to social and economic rights via food security, housing, mental and labor support, very few work to restore civil or political rights.

"We do a good job of addressing social and economic rights through access to services," she said. "But as social workers, who focus on enfranchising people in a democracy, we cannot just focus on social and economic rights, we have to focus on civil and political rights also."

Toft challenged summit attendees to get involved, engage with lawmakers, show up at Social Work Day at the Capitol, and face the tough questions.

"Address personal and organizational forces that limit citizenship," she said. "Are we unknowingly building a system of injustice? How are we complicit?"

By Sharon Rolenc