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The Complicated History of Social Work

Social workers are often a popular suggestion as an alternative to policing. This was especially true during the 2020 summer protests and uprisings as people were rallying against police brutality and killings (The Guardian). Since they are unarmed and trained in de-escalation and crisis management, social workers can seem like the perfect solution.

In theory, this makes sense, but propping up social workers as the answer to systemic racism ignores the past and present role of social workers as the implementers of racist policies in America (National Association of Social Workers). While in a Bachelor of Social Work program, I experienced firsthand how the profession focused on legality over morality. Conversations about reporting hypothetical undocumented immigrants to ICE revealed how many future social workers were willing to turn away those most in need. Beyond that, stereotypes about welfare queens and Black students with no drive to succeed ran rampant in the classroom. Social work students, professors, and practitioners create and perpetuate environments that overlook blatant racism daily.


• Follow Social Welfare Action Alliance and Social Service Workers United-Chicago to learn from social workers that oppose social work oppression.

• Reflect on how policing manifests in different professions. What media and history inform a narrative that social workers are inherently good? How can we support our communities before social services intervention is needed?

To fully understand the extent of social workers’ participation in racist policies and programs, we need to look at the profession’s roots in the U.S. What we consider “social work” in this country began with Jane Addams and fellow wealthy white women providing charity via the Hull House, a home and community space provided for those in need (Jane Addams Papers Project). Despite the success social workers saw in providing housing, education, and social opportunities, there were gaps in what they achieved. For one, Hull House was racially (but not ethnically) segregated from the day doors opened in 1889 into the late 1930s (Jane Addams Papers Project). These social workers also failed to challenge the systems that created poverty and racial inequity. Instead, they focused on systems of charity that did not challenge their own social or financial statuses. As a result, their client’s needs were met, but the root of the problems they faced is still plaguing us today.

This was the beginning of social workers partnering with federal, state, and local governments (GovLoop). Whether providing social welfare or enforcing social policing, social workers are part of the bureaucracy of government bodies on all levels. Too often, this has manifested in social workers perpetuating policies and actions that are racist and inhumane.

As early into the profession as the 1920s, social workers were involved in restricting the reproductive freedoms of marginalized communities. Even the mother of social work, Jane Addams, embraced eugenics as a policy solution to social problems (Affilia). Social workers and other medical professionals agreed that forced sterilization of Black people, poor people, those without an education, single mothers, and mentally disabled people were good for society. This practice continued in North Carolina until 1974, with at least 7,600 victims on the record (MSNBC).

And while social workers are largely responsible for child welfare policies and programs in America, that history is also rooted in racism and violence. In 1958, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency responsible for administering Indigenous land (American Resources on the Net), created the Indian Adoption Project to break up Indigenous families. Predominantly white social workers would visit families on reservations and convince parents that it was in their children’s best interests to sign away their parental rights (Upstander Project). When parents refused to allow their children to be adopted by white parents in eastern states, the coercion and manipulation began. Social workers showed up unannounced when children were in hospitals or being babysat to remove them without consent (MPR).

“We can’t be afraid to use words like genocide,” Anita Fineday, a former chief judge at White Earth Tribal Nation, told Indian Country Today. “The endgame [of the removals], the official federal policy, was that the tribes wouldn’t exist” (Indian Country Today).

Even today, the child welfare system is a tool the government can use to surveil, regulate, and punish poor Black and Brown families. Black children make up nearly 20% of children in foster care (The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis), and Black parents are more likely to have their parental rights terminated than white parents (The Appeal). These statistics do not exist in a vacuum; like many systems in the United States, social work is designed to fail Black and Brown families.

The social work profession is often portrayed as entirely heroic, progressive, or even effective. This is an example of white saviorism, the idea that white people can “rescue people of color from their own situation” (Medium). The history of this profession is barely touched upon in social work education. The seemingly positive influence of rich, racist white women like Addams is prioritized over the harm they inflicted. Social workers are often used as the tools of racist governments, enacting that harm in their work.

Luckily, some social work collectives acknowledge these problems and propose solutions today. Social Service Workers United-Chicago has called out the National Association of Social Workers for its history of racism. In July 2020, they drafted a petition demanding investment in abolitionist and anti-racist practices and divestment from collaborating with racist government agencies like local police and ICE. The petition gained 1,700 individual signatures (Medium).

Social work has value—but it will never be the quick fix to systemic racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness that some people want it to be. Luckily, young Black and Brown people with social work degrees, like me, are stepping up to transform the profession. This has come in the form of recognizing Black organizers from history as social workers, focusing on community education around the profession, and lending our skills to liberation movements. As these actions and movements gain more support, social work could shift into fighting oppression rather than enabling it.


• Social work and policing have racist origins.

• Social work is often used to carry out the government’s discriminatory and other harmful agendas.

• Reform in social work is needed to transform the industry to ensure it aligns its efforts with its image. 

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