I Don’t Think I Am Racist

Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential Campaign

I can’t be a racist.

Some of my best friends are African American. I work with African Americans every day. As a social worker, I fight for social justice, and that includes racial justice, so I’m not a racist.

I certainly don’t want you to think I’m a racist. My family never owned slaves—they were coal miners, which was practically slavery. I believe in diversity, inclusivity, cultural humility, and cultural proficiency and whatever PC term-of-the-week we use for this stuff.

I want to prove to you I’m not a racist. I attend rallies and carry signs.  I was there when they voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. I don’t vote for racist candidates and express my horror at racist comments, especially from our leaders.

I thought I wasn’t a racist. The truth is, I view the world through blue eyes. The world interacts with me as a person with very pale skin. I may not want to be privileged (maybe I do) but damned if I’m not. I’m often treated differently than people of color. If police pull me over, I don’t fear for my life, I fear for points on my license. If I walk down the street in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, people say good morning and comment on the cold weather. They don’t look at me like I’m about to rob them.

When I see rage on the faces of African Americans, I sometimes think—quietly, of course—they may be overreacting. After all, we need to love each other and put the past behind us. We are a rich tapestry of different people and that’s what makes our nation great. This is 2017—time to move forward!

And then Charlottesville happened.

And then I heard the President defend the Nazis and racist, alt-right rally participants.

And then I saw this video and watched white supremacists spew hatred against blacks and Jews while someone was doing CPR on a victim hit by the car.

And I saw this man:

And I saw how his pain, his rage, his desperation reached depths that I have never experienced. He is emotionally bleeding for us all to see, because he has tried EVERYTHING and he is standing in the middle of a frickin’ race war. (I don’t want to say frickin’).

And I heard that right after Charlottesville, a FAMILY MEMBER who teaches about the Holocaust, had received a death threat from someone because they thought he was Jewish.

And then my writing sister who is black, said of her white colleagues, “don’t come to me with your fake tears and your prayers and your hugs. I can’t do it this week. This sh*t is not new. Charlottesville … is all of us. It’s killing us.”

She’s right. She’s right, and we don’t want to see it.

I remember feeling so proud when the Confederate flag came down, and one of my social work mentors (African-American) said, “I don’t care where they flag that ole rag. Taking it down don’t change nothing.”

Yeah, maybe I’m starting to get that now.

After the slaughter of the Emmanuel nine in Charleston, I participated in a workshop about combatting hate. I hoped it would help some of us heal. But when a HBCU professor projected a photograph of a Klan rally, it offended me. “We’re not all like that,” I wanted to scream, but that wasn’t her message. We’re not all like that, but the specter of those white pointed hats is there, is always there, and, like my wise friend said, it’s killing us.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, America has 276 armed militia groups, extremists like the gun-wielding pretend-soldiers in Charlottesville. 276. Let that number sink in.

I don’t want to be a racist, but I can never truly understand the black experience, no matter how hard I try to be an ally. And if I don’t want to be a part of the problem—via action or inaction—then I must confront and accept the ways I have been complicit in this mess. I don’t get to close my eyes to the ugliness that is around me.  I can vote for different leaders, march in rallies, carry signs, write blogs, and be a great social worker but none of that puts a dent in the crap storm we keep denying.

I’d love to end this with some hopeful message, something that makes you feel good about our potential (and about me).

But I got naddah.

So I’ll end with this. My eyes are open. I will fight to keep them open, even if what I see disturbs the hell out of me. And if you see me closing them, get in my face a remind me.

This is ALL OF US.

And we have to fix it.

What White Nationalist Christopher Cantwell Can Remind Us About Social Work Practice

Christopher Cantwell

Over the past 10 days, Christopher Cantwell’s face has become synonymous with the White nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Interviewed by Vice News reporter Ellen Reeves, Mr. Cantwell made clear his sociopolitical perspective as well as potential to engage in violence “if need be,” while showing off his numerous weapons.

Described by the New York Times as a “high-profile activist for the so-called alt-right,” Mr. Cantwell appears to be but one of a number people across the United States who hold racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, ableist, and ethnocentric views, if data from the Southern Poverty Law Center are correct.

At present, Mr. Cantwell appears to be facing at least four arrest warrants related to his participation in the “Unite the Right” rally on August 12, 2017.  On Sunday, Mr. Cantwell addressed his “Radical Agenda” blog followers, suggesting that soon he would likely be in jail, pending a trial.  As a criminal defendant, Mr. Cantwell has the distinct possibility of interacting with a legal social worker either as part of his defense team or as a jail inmate.

If convicted, Mr. Cantwell might come into contact with a prison-based social worker as well.  Given the potential for this scenario to become a reality, I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what Christopher Cantwell’s case has to remind us about approaching social work practice post-Charlottesville.  I think we need to reflect on three specific points.

In times of challenge, reaching out for guidance is a helpful action.  For example, social workers can seek the guidance of their Code of Ethics around respecting the dignity and worth of every person they work with.  There have been many times where I sought guidance while working as a legal social worker for the defense bar.  This mandate requires us to recognize our client’s right to their own perspective, and ‘practice wisdom’ tells us to ‘start where the client is’ as we pursue our practice goals and objectives.

While we know the above in theory, it can be hard to sit with a client we disagree with, perhaps viscerally, in these difficult post-Charlottesville times.  In this situation, making sure that we receive true clinical supervision (as opposed to just administrative supervision) is critical.  In an era where our clinical practice is often dominated by needing to achieve productivity targets, we can’t let clinical supervision slip.

We may wish to encourage our client to take a step back in order to view how others might see her/his actions or words if it fits with our intervention role and goal, but we may not be ready without working through such an approach with our clinical supervisor first!

In order to do the above, we must work towards the maintenance of ‘empathic neutrality.’ Qualitative Researcher Michael Quinn Patton framed empathic neutrality as a “stance that seeks vicarious understanding (i.e. empathy) without judgment”.  In order to foster rapport with our clients while keeping our personal biases in control, empathic neutrality is a vital skill.

Perhaps reflecting on the words of human rights activist Malcolm X will be of use to us in this effort:

“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

As our profession stands up to address racial injustices derived from ongoing white supremacy, we need guideposts for our work. By drawing on these three tools, we can effectively do right by those clients of ours that may hold viewpoints very dissimilar to our own.

A Practical Guide on How to Confront Hate

Tina Kempin Reuter, Ph.D., director of the UAB Institute for Human Rights Photo Credit: UAB

In the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tina Kempin Reuter, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Institute for Human Rights offers some practical tips on how to confront hate.

Know your human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the key document guiding human rights advocacy. It is based on the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights and is founded on the core values of equality, non-discrimination and human dignity.

“Knowing one’s human rights is an important step that often gets forgotten,” Reuter said. “Learning the content and extent of basic human rights will give people the tools and language needed to address certain issues. Discrimination, suppression, racism, marginalization, and violence against individuals or groups are human rights violations that must be confronted.”

Reuter urges reporting human rights violations to the authorities such as the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice or other entities such as the American Civil Liberties Union. If an incident occurs in the workplace, inform your human resources representative or a diversity officer. At UAB, students, faculty, and staff can contact the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. You can learn more about international human rights by visiting the United Nations Human Rights website and by reading the UAB Institute for Human Rights blog, where faculty and students write about international human rights issues.

Speak up in the face of injustice

Once you know what human rights and human rights violations are, Reuter encourages everyone to pay attention and speak up in the face of injustice. Pay attention to what happens in your everyday life. Document, record and monitor what is going on around you, and if you see injustice, say something.

“The goal is to make everyday suppression of a specific group based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability status just as unacceptable as the violence and hatred that has occurred in Charlottesville,” Reuter said. “It’s these normal, hidden human rights violations that are particularly dangerous to our society and that we have to confront together.”

Be aware of your own biases

One of the ways to overcome biases and stereotypes is to engage with those who are different. Research shows that interpersonal contact is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice. This theory is called contact hypothesis. The theory suggests that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority groups.

“It is incredibly important to be aware of your own biases,” Reuter said. “We all have them. Realize if you cross the street when a person of a different race walks toward you. Notice if you assume that someone is less competent because she is a woman, a person of color or Muslim. Think about systemic racism and structural violence in your own environment, and find ways to confront them. Actively learn about how our society has grown to marginalize some to the benefit of others. I encourage people to reach out and make new friends outside of their race, religion and gender.”

Join a movement or a cause that fits your passions and interests

Join a movement, and talk with others who feel the same. Look for a rally in your community. Organize a vigil. Participate in a discussion. Engage with others. Get together formally or informally. Look for opportunities to talk. The UAB Institute for Human Rights is a part of the StandAsOne Coalition. If you are a UAB student, you can join the Students for Human Rights club.

“Not all of us are born to be activists or community organizers,” Reuter said. “We cannot all become Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Leymah Gboweee; but we all can contribute by supporting the movement. Think about what you are good at and how your skills and talent can be used to move a cause forward.”

Call your representatives

One of the most effective ways to achieve policy change is to call local and state representatives. Reuter says calling is much more impactful than writing an email, Facebook message or letter. She advises anyone contacting their local representative to be polite to the staff, which is who you will most likely get on the line. Their staff members do not have influence on the decision-making process, but they will record your call and do not mind taking opposing views as long as the conversation is civil.

Educate others

This step does not have to be formal. You can educate others by leading by example, or by bringing a friend along to a conversation you are having. It can happen person to person, on social media or on any other platform you use to connect with others. Creating art, poems and performances are incredible ways to get your point across to people who might find that formal ways of education do not resonate with them.

“It is such a privilege to be an educator,” Reuter said. “It is one of my favorite parts of my job to talk to students about issues that affect the world and to encourage them to learn more about these topics. It’s something that everyone can do. Teach your children and young relatives about kindness, human rights, and peace building. Teach them also about systemic suppression, racism and the way our society has oppressed minorities. Talk to them about what bothers you and what you would like to achieve. You don’t have to be a professor or teacher to educate others.”

Donate

One of the fastest and easiest opportunities to make an impact is to donate to an organization that fights for human rights or civil rights.

There are a number of organizations dedicated to ensuring the preservation of individual rights and liberties, one of which is the UAB Institute for Human Rights. You can learn more about the Institute here.

Take care of yourself

Confronting issues such as hatred, violence, and suppression can take a mental and physical toll on anyone. Reuter says it is important to know what you can and cannot do, what you are willing to do, and what your priorities are.

“Focus on the local level. Start in your own community,” Reuter said. “That world is changed person by person, but don’t forget to take care of your needs. When you start to feel overwhelmed, shut down Facebook, Twitter, cable news and other forms of media. Enjoy time with your friends and family. Be kind to yourself, and realize that real progress takes patience.”

A Teacher’s Response to Charlottesville for Social Workers in Practice with People with Disabilities

Charlottesville Black Cop
Officer patrols in front of a recent KKK rally in Charlottesville, Va. – Jill Mumie

I am currently teaching a course on social work practice with people with disabilities.  The course uses an intersectional lens, acknowledging the fact that people have many intersecting social identities that can result in varying types of privilege and oppression.  As such, I had to provide some venue for my students to address the Charlottesville violence and hate speech.  The following is a discussion prompt I provided for them to respond to, and I thought other social work educators might be interested in seeing this so that they could use it and/or modify it for their own courses.  Feedback welcome!

Discussion prompt: As we are part of a course on social work practice with people with disabilities in the United States of America, I would be remiss not to address the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. As you have already likely gathered, there are important links between the White nationalist/Nazi actions in Virginia, and the work we do as social workers with people with disabilities – who often have intersecting marginalized social identities.

Many of the perspectives held by members of White nationalist/Nazi groups are clearly identifiable as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and even Eugenic in nature.  Therefore, as social workers practicing under our particular Code of Ethics, we need to respond. If you need some quick resources to learn more about the dynamics that led to the Charlottesville rally and violence, you can check out the “Charlottesville Syllabus” at this link.

As disability-aware social workers training to view the world through an intersectional lens, we need to acknowledge and act on what has happened in Charlottesville. That means that we need to engage in discussions – often difficult in nature – with our families, our co-workers and with our clients. Let’s start with our work with clients.

One prominent disability civil rights activist, Rebecca Cokley, has noted that when terrorist incidents like this occur, people with disability count the minutes until ableist claims about the ‘crazy’ person who engaged in terrorist acts roll in. That may be an important place for you to start a conversation with a client with a disability in a week like this one. In this essay, Ms. Cokley points out another important link between disability and trauma.  She calls for the disability community (and disability service providers) to reach out to those whose disabilities came about as a result of trauma, such as the people who were injured and impaired by the car driven by the White nationalist/Nazi from Ohio. Her essay is short, easy to read and compelling and you can find it here.

It is also important to remember, however, that our work is not just direct care work. Remember, the NASW Code of Ethics states that we must fight for social justice, as it is a core value in our profession. We need to do more than discuss these difficult topics amongst ourselves, we also need to take a stand on them. I am fond of the idea that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

It is important to move beyond ideas of ourselves as “good” people and work towards actively addressing the webs of oppression that exist in our world, little bit by little bit. Here is an example about how ADAPT, the national disability civil rights organization, has taken a stance on the events in Charlottesville. Where might you be able to stake your claim to your own stance?  Check out these ideas for 10 ways to fight hate from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Finally, I want to leave you with a challenging set of questions. Although there are many facets to the NASW Code of Ethics, let us remember that the mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values, including the idea that there is dignity and worth in every person.  How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color?  What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?”  Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?

How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color? What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?”  Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?

Please leave your comments about this discussion prompt and how it might be improved or expanded upon.  All feedback is welcome.

By the Numbers: American Youth Increasingly Exposed to Extremist Messages Online, Virginia Tech Expert Says

James Hawdon
James Hawdon – Photo Credit: Virginia Tech

Right-wing extremist groups are increasingly using the internet to spread their messages, and more and more it’s young adults they’re reaching in the process, according to a Virginia Tech expert who studies the topic.

James Hawdon, a professor of sociology and the director of the Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, notes that “extremism comes in many forms and colors.” But studies he and his colleagues have published and continue to work on show a rise in hate groups in the United States from the political right in the last decade.

“Extremist groups such as the KKK started using the internet almost immediately after it was developed. But the number of active hate groups operating in the United States increased by 66 percent between 2000 and 2010, and by 2010 there were over 1,000 active hate groups online. Although the number of active groups are down since the peak year of 2011, they have increased since 2015. Now, individuals maintaining sites or commenting online are the main disseminators of online extremism.”

“Based on our data, more people are seeing extremist messaging online. The number of Americans ages 15 to 21 who are exposed to online extremist messages increased by over 20 percent, from 58.3 percent to 70.2 percent, between 2013 and 2016.”

“The growth of hate groups from the political right has been especially pronounced, as there was a substantial increase in right-wing hate group formation and activity after the 2008 election of Barack Obama.”

“Using our 2016 data, we see that of those who report seeing extremist messaging online:

  • 68.9 percent report that the group or groups being attacked are racial or ethnic minorities
  • 48.2 percent attack groups based on their nationality
  • Approximately 40 percent of these messages openly advocate violence against the targeted group
  • Nearly 50 percent of the messages advocate hatred of the group, and one-third of the messages openly call for discrimination against the group.”

“Why this has happened is complex, but it should be noted that extremism has a long history in the United States. Indeed, the number of violent acts attributable to extremists in the country has decreased since the 1970s. However, currently, right-wing extremism is the most common form.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUV_jEKFMQE

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