CULTURAL COMPETENCE is a fundamental tenet of professional social
work practice. A cultural competence mandate is contained in both the
Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Educational Policy and
Accreditation Standards and the National Association of Social Work
(NASW) Code of Ethics, and it is promoted in numerous practice
textbooks. Historically, cultural competence with diverse populations
referred to individuals and groups from non-White racial, ethnic, or
cultural origins. However, the term has evolved to encompass group
differences pertaining to gender, sexuality, religion, age, ability,
language, nationality, and others. Knowledge about the complexity of
personal and social identity formation as well as the intersectionality
of multiple axes of oppression that underscore social work problems,
practices, and interventions led to the broadening of cultural
competence beyond, racial and ethnic categories (Razack, 1999; Rothman,
2008). Scholars note several challenges associated with the dominant
cultural competence model, including the eclipsing of race as a central
mechanism of oppression, student resistance, and the unintentional
reinforcement of a color-blind lens (Razack & Jeffery, 2002;
Schiele, 2007; Yee, 2005).
In this article we argue that critical race theory (CRT) can be
used to address some of these noted problems associated with the
cultural competence model. We provide an in-depth discussion of
challenges associated with cultural competence education, with an
emphasis on educating social workers to respond effectively to
institutional racism. We also introduce the basic tenets of CRT and
apply these central concepts to the challenges involved in delivering
effective diversity education in social work. In addition, we pose the
benefits and limitations of infusing CRT into the graduate social work
Cultural Competence: History and Overview
The origins and development of the cultural competence (often
called "cultural sensitivity" or "multicultural")
model and its role in social work ideology, practice, and pedagogy are
documented in published articles and texts (e.g., Potocky, 1997;
Rothman, 2008; Schiele, 2007; Spencer, Lewis, & Gutierrez, 2000). We
provide here a brief summary before presenting empirical and
Although aspects of traditional social work discourses have long
espoused a mission to examine and remedy issues of oppression, including
racism, the evolving emphasis on diversity and cultural competence has
its roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Social
workers of color, along with White advocates, challenged some of the
longstanding Eurocentric biases in social work teaching and practice,
including a predominantly deficit-oriented view of individuals and
communities of color. This activist pressure led to increased attention
to race and racism in social work history, gave a voice to the lived
experiences of faculty and social workers of color, and eventually led
to CSWE's adoption of standards that mandate content on race,
racism, and people of color (Spencer et al., 2000).
Working to meet the CSWE mandate, the 1970s and early 1980s ushered
in key educational texts. Pivotal publications on race and ethnicity
included Barbara Solomon's (1976) Black Empowerment: Social Work in
Oppressed Communities, Wynetta Devore and Elfriede Schlesinger's
(1981) Ethnic-Sensitive Social Work Practice, and Doman Lum's
(1986) Social Work Practice and People of Color: A Process-Stage
Approach. With variation, these texts generally rethink social
work's Eurocentric purview; challenge social workers to become
aware of their personal value orientations and worldviews; expose how
racism creates structural disadvantages that impact individual and
community well-being; and offer suggestions for working with increased
competence with racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities in the United
States. Race, ethnicity, and, to some extent, culture more broadly
constituted the primary focus of this earlier literature.
Since the mid-1980s the tone and character of
"ethnic-sensitive practice" has expanded beyond race and
ethnicity to promote awareness of multiple forms of oppression such as
sexism, heterosexism, ageism, and ableism. This trend responds to the
postmodern emphasis on the intersectionality of multiple categories of
identity (Williams, 2006), and awareness of the existence of multiple
forms of oppression that affect individual and community functioning
(Schiele, 2007). CSWE's (2001) revised standards for cultural
competence reflect these discursive developments by identifying 14 axes
of difference as potential sources of oppression and diversity. In
keeping with these trends, contemporary "cultural competence"
texts now include chapters on women; disabilities; and gay, lesbian,
bisexual, and transgender/transsexual issues (e.g., Appleby, Colon,
& Hamilton, 2001; Rothman, 2008), and earlier works are now expanded
or modified to reflect this broadened view (e.g., Devore &
Schlesinger, 1999; Lum, 2003).
Although the cultural competence model has diverse epistemological
interpretations and curricular applications (Williams, 2006), two major
ideological underpinnings can be discerned: self-awareness and skills
development. The cultural sensitivity framework as it is used in social
work and related fields (such as education and counseling) understands
that all people, including people of color, possess values, beliefs, and
assumptions that they bring into the helping relationship. Social work
students are encouraged to undertake a process of becoming aware of the
origins and development of their personal values and worldviews with
regard to differences so that their deeply rooted and perhaps
unconscious beliefs can be recognized and subsequently set aside, or
"bracketed," in the helping exchange. Yan and Wong (2005)
critique this bracketing process as unrealistic and argue instead that
the social work exchange is mutually influential and intersubjective,
rather then morally neutral. Nevertheless, cultural competence frames
self-awareness as a lifelong endeavor, because issues of difference and
value orientation are context specific and constantly in flux. In
addition to this process-oriented work, cultural competence focuses on a
skills-based component that includes building knowledge about specific
ethnic or cultural groups and developing practice techniques that
accompany this knowledge (Rothman, 2008). This population-specific piece
entails a set of practice skills that build on a standard helping
relationship yet are modified according to the needs, styles,
worldviews, and customs of the focal group.
Critiques of Cultural Competence
Scholars adopting a critical lens toward the cultural competence
model often contend that the framework's focus on individual
attitudes leaves social workers unequipped to deal with institutional
racism and oppression on all of the levels where it
permeates--individually, structurally, and globally (Pollack, 2004;
Razack, 1999; Razack & Jeffery, 2002; Yee, 2005). In historically
tracing social work's various movements surrounding diversity,
Potocky (1997) notes that the "cultural sensitivity" model
targets change at the level of social workers' personal beliefs and
agency practices, whereas the "antioppression model" works
toward change across individual, agency, and systems levels. Hence, an
overarching critique of the cultural competence framework is that it
does not reach far enough in addressing systemic and institutionalized
oppressions. Additional critiques of cultural competence emerge from
philosophical angles as well as limited empirical evidence. In the
following sections we organize these critiques thematically, paying
specific attention to the preparation of students to grapple with
enduring and systemic race-based oppression.
Challenges raised regarding the delivery of effective cultural
competence education include student readiness, teacher preparation, and
possible resistance from both groups. Lee and Greene (2003) and Razack
(1999) argue that the teaching of diversity content in social work
education is often hindered by a lack of student readiness to deal with
difficult or contentious discussions about race or other oppressions in
the classroom setting. Related to this lack of readiness, a common
reaction to discussing racism, structural disadvantages, or oppression
is resistance to the material, particularly when the conversation turns
to issues of privilege, and White privilege in particular (Abrams &
Gibson, 2007). Resistance in this context means that students tend to
deny their own role in occupying privileged or more powerful social
identity positions, and it may even take the form of outward anger,
resentment, or an overwhelming sense of guilt (Julia, 2000). Although
resistance to locating the self in the privilege-oppression spectrum can
occur for any individual, most empirical research has specifically
examined White privilege. Garcia and Van Soest's (1997) study of 43
MSW students enrolled in a mandatory cultural diversity class lends some
support to these philosophical charges. They found that 71% of White
students reported that their own privilege acted as a barrier to
learning about or accepting the existence of oppression. In addition,
Le-Doux and Montalvo's (1999) national survey of 75 deans and
directors of accredited graduate social work programs and 45 social work
faculty teaching diversity content (and including a review of 32 course
syllabi) found that instructors experienced defensiveness, anger, and
denial as common reactions to the presentation of diversity material.
The issue is not that these reactions arise, because the literature on
teaching about White privilege suggests that these responses are part of
a normative process (Abrams & Gibson, 2007). Rather, it is that the
cultural competence model may not move students from these more primary
defensive responses to a more refined critique of privilege and then to
collective social action (Helms, 1995).
Other scholars argue that the delivery of cultural competence or
diversity education in social work can be hindered by instructors'
lack of preparation and training in this area (Petrovich & Lowe,
2005; Razack, 1999). LeDoux and Montalvo's (1999) study found a
heavy reliance among instructors on traditional methods to deliver
diversity education. They suggest that these traditional didactic
methods are not appropriate for this course content, which requires
skills in facilitating difficult discussions and contending with group
dynamics. Moreover, based on their personal or professional backgrounds,
educators may not be ready to deal with the type of intense personal or
interpersonal reactions that can arise when engaging in discussions
about racism or other oppressions. Garcia and Van Soest's (2000)
empirical study of 304 graduate- and undergraduate-level social work
faculty found that faculty of color and junior faculty were more likely
to respond with sensitivity to "critical events" (such as
conflicts or arguments about diversity issues) than were White or more
senior faculty. They argue that faculty must "develop comfort with
discussing issues related to diversity in order to demonstrate how to
place perspective on heated and strained interaction" (2000, p.
35). Hence, they concur with Le-Doux and Montalvo (1999) that training
teachers how to facilitate meaningful dialogues about race and racism is
needed to effectively implement a diversity curriculum.
A longstanding, overarching critique of the cultural competence
framework is that it lacks the specificity needed to attain any concrete
learning or practice objectives (Furness, 2005; Homer & Borrero,
1981; Julia, 2000; Williams, 2006). There are few empirical outcome
studies, however, to support this claim, and those that do exist are
typically pilot or exploratory (Garcia & Van Soest, 1997; Petrovich
& Lowe, 2005). Yet the findings derived from these exploratory
studies cast some doubt that learning outcomes are actually attained.
For example, Bronstein, Berman-Rossi, and Winfield's (2002) study
of 57 students in direct practice courses found that students were not
learning as much content on oppression as faculty stated they were
teaching. Moreover, in a recent focus group study of alumni and current
students of an MSW program, both students and alumni expressed the need
for a greater level of transferability of cultural competence principles
to field and agency settings (Petrovich & Lowe, 2005). In a more
removed outcome measure, Green, Kieman-Stern, and Baskind's (2005)
survey of 257 White NASW members found that social workers'
cognitive attitudes about race were more positive than their affective
attitudes, and that their beliefs about the existence of racism did not
differ widely from those of the wider American public. These empirical
studies suggest that the transfer of cultural competence learning to
practice situations may be an area of concern; however, it is difficult
to generalize from these studies given their sample sizes and design
Diffusion of Racism and Color Blindness
As highlighted earlier, the cultural competence model has
increasingly expanded its focus to include many categories of social
difference. Schlele (2007) argues that although this broadening was a
foreseeable response to emerging knowledge about the complexity of
multiple identities and increasingly vocal activism about multiple forms
of oppression, this diffusion of information produces an "equality
of oppressions" paradigm that tends to downplay racism's
persistent legacy and leaves social workers unprepared to deal with the
realities of racism, both systemically and interpersonally. Razack and
Jeffery (2002) likewise contend that the fundamental problem of
approaching racism in the cultural sensitivity framework is the leveling
of oppressions, which instructors and students might find more
comfortable (and fair) because it avoids a hierarchy of oppressions, but
it leaves unquestioned the racialized values and beliefs that drive our
fundamental social institutions. Le-Doux and Montalvo's (1999)
national survey empirically supports these arguments about the diffusion
of race in the cultural competence model. For example, the course
syllabi they reviewed include a "very diluted curricula" that
spans many groups with "a little something for everyone" (p.
Further, by leveling race under the auspices of a
"multicultural umbrella," critics charge that social
work's cultural competence curriculum may unintentionally reinforce
a color-blind paradigm that teaches students to ignore racial
differences (Schiele, 2007; Yee, 2005). Color blindness is associated
with the liberal 1970s ideal of learning not to see race or color in an
attempt to eliminate personal prejudices and to promote a "level
playing field." According to Carniol (2005), color blindness
precludes analysis of contradictions among claims of neutrality,
fairness, and equality, and the below-surface reality of discrimination
in everyday practice and policy. Empirical support for these arguments
about the color-blind results of social work education is limited.
However, Van Soest's (1996) quasi-experimental study of 222 MSW
students, most of whom were White, found that exposure to a cultural
diversity class actually increased respondents' belief in a
"just world," meaning a fundamentally fair and equal society,
despite the intent of the class to expose students to the realities of
structural disadvantages such as racism and sexism. Similarly,
Julia's (2000) study of 75 students at a midwestern university
found a great deal of complacency among students about the existence of
racism in American society. Although more rigorous research is needed,
these data lend some empirical support to the argument that the cultural
competence model's focus on individual attitudes and its diffuse
survey of cultural and social groups may not effectively prepare
students to grapple with the realities of racism.
CRT: An Overview
CRT emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement as a component
of legal scholarship, meaning the study and analysis of the law.
Although CRT has grown in its application in many disciplines, CRT
scholarship as a whole challenges liberalist claims of objectivity,
neutrality, and color blindness of the law and argues that these
principles actually normalize and perpetuate racism by ignoring the
structural inequalities that permeate social institutions. CRT draws
from diverse disciplines such as sociology, history, feminist and
postcolonial studies, economics, political science, and ethnic and
cultural studies. Its general mission seeks to analyze, deconstruct, and
transform for the better the relationship among race, racism, and power
(Delgado & Stefancic, 2001).
CRT unequivocally states that analysis of the law cannot be neutral
and objective and stresses that recognition of and voices from
standpoint and race consciousness are essential to radical racial
reform. Because race is the scaffolding that structures American
society, there can be no "perch outside the social dynamics of
racial power from which to merely observe and analyze" (Crenshaw,
Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1995, p. xiii). CRT refutes two principal
liberalist claims with regard to the law: (1) that it is color-blind and
(2) that color blindness is superior to race consciousness. For example,
Gotanda (2000) argues that the concept of color blindness is itself
contradictory, because to exclude race from a decision-making process,
the existence of race must first be acknowledged. He concludes that
color blindness--that is, the choice to exclude race--is actually
racially premised rather than neutral.
Although CRT theorists and practitioners have diverse approaches
and emphases, their scholarship and advocacy share common ground in the
following six basic tenets:
1. Endemic racism. Rather than accepting racism as abnormal or
individualistic, CRT asserts that racism is an ordinary, everyday
occurrence for people of colon It is deeply embedded in the social
fabric of American society, permeating our social structures and
practices. Because racism is ordinary and embedded, its structural
functions and effect on our ways of thinking are often invisible,
particularly to people holding racial privilege. In turn, this
"invisibility" maintains racism.
2. Race as a social construction. CRT maintains that race is a
contrived system of categorizing people according to observable physical
attributes that have no correspondence to genetic or biological reality.
Although CRT regards race as a social construction, it fully
acknowledges the force of its meaning and implications.
3. Differential racialization. Dominant social discourses and
people in power can racialize groups of people in different ways at
different times, depending on historic, social, or economic need. For
example, various Asian American groups were viewed as benign, if not
favorable, when a large, inexpensive labor force was needed. Over time,
when the financial independence and success of Asian American groups
appeared threatening to the national economy, these groups were
demonized in popular discourse and excluded from citizenship by law.
Today, after a third reversal in racialization, Asian Americans are
considered a "model minority."
4. Interest convergence/materialist determinism. Racism brings
material and psychic advantage to the majority race, and progressive
change regarding race occurs only when the interests of the powerful
(i.e., the White majority) happen to converge with those of the racially
oppressed (Bell, 1995).
5. Voices of color. The dominant group's accounting of history
routinely excludes racial and other minority perspectives to justify and
legitimize its power. This silencing of alternative experiences serves
to minimize and obscure the interplay of power and oppression across
time and place. CRT advocates a rewriting of history to include the
lived reality of oppressed groups from their perspectives and in their
own words. Bringing these narratives into account challenges liberalist
claims of neutrality, color blindness, and universal truths (Delgado,
6. Antiessentialism/intersectionality. CRT acknowledges the
intersectionality of various oppressions and suggests that a primary
focus on race can eclipse other forms of exclusion. For example, the
marginalized race, sexuality, and class of a poor, gay, African American
person presents a far more complex social location than any single
aspect of his identity alone. In fact, CRT theorists contend that
analysis without a multidimensional framework can replicate the very
patterns of social exclusion it seeks to combat and can lead to the
essentializing of oppressions (Hutchinson, 2000). The essentializing of
oppression is a political choice and problematic from a strategic
perspective. Although it may be clear that all marginalized people share
the experience of oppression, it is less clear whether reform efforts
should target oppression from a particularized (antiessential) or a
communal (essentialized) perspective. Coalitions have greater power to
effect social change; however, addressing broad concerns over individual
experiences can force people into choosing a singular identity, leaving
other aspects of their oppression unaddressed (Delgado & Stefancic,
2001). Ambivalence surrounding this dilemma drives much internal debate
in CRT scholarship.
Drawing on the six core principles described in the previous
section, the academy has formed specific subdivisions of CRT, such as
Latino Critical Race Studies (Perea, 2000; Soloranzo & Yosso, 2001),
Asian American Critical Race Studies (e.g., Gotanda, 1995; Matsuda,
1995), Queer Crit (Arriola, 2000; Valdes, 2000), and Fern Crit (Carbado,
2000; Hernandez-Truyol, 1997). CRT has also been applied to professional
disciplines such as policy studies (Limbert & Bullock, 2005) and
education (Dixson & Rousseau, 2006). In the field of education, CRT
has been of particular value in exploring the challenges of integrating
cultural competency into professional teacher-training programs. CRT
highlights the ways in which teachers are ill prepared for the realities
of their increasingly diverse student learners. Critiques include the
explicit avoidance of race (Lopez, 2003), the ad hoc nature of
multicultural modules (Zeichner, 1992, as cited in Ladson-Billings,
1999), and the lack of integration of diversity issues into all
classroom and field experiences (Ladson-Billings, 1999). Infusing CRT
into teacher training curricula has had some success in challenging the
Eurocentric "difference as deficit" or "minority
education" frameworks. However, the lack of standardized requisites
for cultural competency, the numerous course requirements to be met
within rigid time frames, and the persistence of a "race
neutral" ideology all hamper broader application of CRT in teacher
training (Ladson-Billings, 1999; Lopez, 2003). Although CRT has been
incorporated into the scholarship and practice of multicultural teacher
training, existing literature contains very limited applications of CRT
to social work theory or pedagogy.
CRT and Social Work Pedagogy
Social work has its own traditions of critical scholarship that
challenge some of the historical practices of the profession and the
larger society that serve to perpetuate institutionalized oppression,
including racism. Radical critical, structural, Afrocentric, and
feminist social work frameworks have widened the social work knowledge
base by introducing and centralizing particular issues and offering a
more politically radical (left-leaning) social work agenda (Evans, 2000;
Gil, 1998; Piven & Cloward, 1993). Although varying in emphasis and
focus, these various forms of social work scholarship offer some basis
for critical engagement with questions of power and exclusion; as such,
they comprise components of antioppression practice. Antioppression is a
term loosely applied to models that identify exclusion and oppression
from within and outside of the profession.
Social work scholarship contains some integrated antioppression
features (i.e., structural analysis of oppression; how it is created,
sustained, and justified), offering methods and classroom technology to
challenge or add to the cultural competence paradigm (Porocky, 1997).
Yet, although the various anti-oppressive frameworks have advanced
thinking and curriculum in many ways, critics within the discipline
still maintain that they have not sufficiently addressed race,
racialization, and racism as centralizing forces of oppression (Razack
& Jeffery, 2002; Yee, 2005). For example, Yee (2005) suggests that
although antiracism and antioppression are similar, only antiracism
positions race as a central mechanism of oppression. Furthermore,
antiracism explicitly defines White as a racial category, as the
normative identity, and as the group holding the greatest ideological
power. From Yee's perspective, an antiracist pedagogy would
incorporate identifying exclusionary practices, locating the source of
these practices within structures, identifying the racist nature of the
structures, and exploring how they are maintained and reproduced through
the social construction of race and privilege.
Canadian scholars Razack and Jeffery (2002) argue that CRT and
social work are highly compatible, and furthermore, that diversity or
cultural competence training without a rigorous race analysis provides
students with less than adequate perspective and tools to locate and act
on exclusionary and oppressive social practices. They also offer the
only published and explicit application of CRT to social work pedagogy
Drawing on CRT, they design and propose eight basic tenets for
integrating critical race discourse into diversity education in social
work. The organizing feature of their 8-point model is race, and its
prime directive is an interrogation and deconstruction of racism and all
associated contingencies. The first six tenets are (1) whiteness as
normative and nonracial; (2) the silence of marginalized narratives; (3)
liberal principles of neutrality, fairness, and meritocracy; (4) color
blindness; (5) the inextricability of race, power, and privilege; and
(6) the legitimizing of race scholarship within the social work field.
This tenet speaks to what Delgado (1995) calls the "studied
indifference to minority writing on issues of race" (p. 51), which
Razack and Jeffery suggest marginalizes antioppression and antiracist
scholarship and pedagogy as areas of questionable value. The seventh
tenet, legitimizing the voice of minority scholarship on race and
oppression, invites alternative perspectives that are needed to
"counter a curriculum that only engages the dominant group"
(Razack & Jeffery 2002, p. 267). The final tenet of their model
speaks to the need for social work to acknowledge and understand the
implication of race on a global scale. What they call "globalized
understandings of race" broaden the structural critique to
encompass racism within and across societies outside the United States.
Economic and political restructuring of countries persistently trigger
massive flows of displaced persons across borders. A disproportionate
number of these immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant
workers are people of color (Martin, 2001). Many are poor and most are
denied access to resources necessary to fulfill their daily needs.
Whether social workers are based nationally or internationally, Razack
and Jeffery (2002) argue that effective practice includes a critical
understanding of how racism has impacted the lives of displaced
individuals at the personal, institutional, and global levels.
CRT and the Cultural Competence Dilemma
Razack and Jeffery's CRT model of social work diversity
education differs from the cultural competence paradigm in its explicit
and aggressive critique of the larger structures and ideologies around
race that often remain unexamined and intact. In the following sections
we propose how CRT concepts and pedagogy can be used to address some of
the empirical and philosophical challenges associated with the cultural
competence curriculum framework.
Contending With Resistance
As noted in existing research, student resistance may be a
normative part of the cross-cultural learning process. It is our
contention that this resistance becomes problematic when it results in a
closed posture to the material or a denial of existing problems
concerning race, and that CRT offers innovative ways to handle this
phenomenon. First, in its focus on systemic and historical forces, CRT
can alleviate personal resistance stemming from self-blame and guilt.
For example, when students tend to deny they are "racist," CRT
provides the perspective that "passive racism," or
participation in a racist system, is different from acting consciously
with racist intent. In this sense, students can understand their own
role in institutional systems of racism without feeling personally
responsible for historical legacies of violence, genocide, and
oppression. Second, by providing concrete direction about social agency
toward dismantling racism, CRT can help to alleviate the guilt, fear,
and sense of paralysis that often follow the realization of
participating in a racist society. Although CRT cannot prepare students
in advance to contend with difficult subject matter or intense classroom
discussions, we argue that CRT offers concrete ways to understand and
contend with resistance, denial, and guilt as barriers to student
learning about racism and the significance of racial differences.
One of the primary noted problems with cultural competence pedagogy
is the absence of clear outcome goals and essentially nonexistent
measurement tools. Moreover, the few studies that do exist generally
show that courses are falling short of reaching their intentions. CRT
scholars post an alternative view of learning outcomes, suggesting that
the social work "toolkit mentality" be supplanted by critical
thinking skills in regard to teaching about racism and related
oppressions (Jeffery, 2005; Razack, 1999). Jeffery (2005) suggests that
the critical race project is incongruent with the social work
"competencies" mentality that drives the traditional pedagogy.
She argues that if social work wants to move toward an antiracist
stance, then the profession likewise needs to rethink or reexamine its
stated goals regarding cultural competence. Thus, rather than addressing
the stated problem around clarity and measurement, CRT reformulates the
problem by asking social workers to clarify what the results of
antiracist education might look like. We argue that quantifiable skill
outcomes suggest a set of fixed techniques that can be performed outside
real-life context with predictable outcomes. Yet racial awareness is a
formative process that involves cognitive, affective, and
action-oriented changes that may not result simply from exposure to one
or two courses. Although not denying the need for better empirical
measures of cultural competence teaching outcomes, we suggest that these
goals and measurement tools be carefully reconsidered in relation to the
multiple dimensions and processes involved in antiracist pedagogy.
Overcoming Equalization of Oppressions and Color Blindness
Philosophically, the cultural competence paradigm has sustained
allegations of diffusing a focus on race and thereby minimizing the
significance of racism in social welfare and in the larger society.
Integrating CRT into courses on diverse populations obviates the
tendency in these courses to conflate culture and ethnicity with race,
or to equalize sources of oppression under one multicultural umbrella
(Park, 2005). This occurs because CRT begins with the premise that our
society is far from race neutral in our laws and basic social
structures, and in turn these larger social entities influence our
everyday individual thoughts, actions, and interactions. This
macro-to-micro view fits well with social work's systems
perspective and draws the focus away from cultural neutrality and toward
race consciousness. From that purview, students can then move on to
understand other forms of oppression beyond racism. Yet race remains
central and does not get lost in a "level playing field." CRT
also explicitly challenges color blindness and accounts for its origins,
meanings, and implications. Thus, teaching CRT or infusing CRT into
diversity curriculum does not run the risk of unintentionally producing
social work students who are trained not to "see" color or who
are inclined to deny racism's persistent legacy.
Moving to Action and Antioppression Practice
Increasingly, students in the social work field are pressured to
use clinical interventions conforming to principles of evidence-based
practice or managed care guidelines, which translates into directing
energy toward individual rather than systems change. These pressures
exist in tension with social work concepts of social justice and
action-oriented models and highlight the challenge of bridging social
work theory and practice. Antiracist and antioppression workers in the
policy and management arenas are similarly constrained by frameworks
informed by liberal colorblind principles. CRT helps students move
beyond mere description and understanding of systematic racism and
answers the call for concrete action guidelines in everyday practice in
any arena (Callender et al., 2007).
These guidelines operate for the worker at both the personal and
institutional levels. At the institutional level, rather than accepting
the task of encouraging or passively supporting client adjustment to
systems of oppression, CRT skills foster worker opposition to
institutional oppression through, for example, identifying and analyzing
the problem from the client's perspective, providing emotional
and/or political support, challenging the individualism underlying much
policy and practice, reframing problems through critical consciousness,
and critiquing institutional structures of oppression within agencies or
policies and advocating for change (Carniol, 2005). At the personal
level, CRT demands an ongoing critical reflection, as well as vigilance
for unearned privileges that flow to the self at the expense of others.
It demands critical attention to defensive denial and worker
responsiveness to resist or disrupt the links between unearned privilege
and its harmful consequences (Carniol, 2005; Yee, 2005).
Challenges to implementation
Although we believe that an integration of CRT across various
facets of the social work curriculum has the potential to move social
work students toward critical thinking, informed practice, and action
around racism, privilege, and oppression, we also recognize its
limitations. The major limitation is making space or time in an already
crowded curriculum to include CRT readings and applications. Ideally,
CRT readings would be used throughout various courses, rather than
segregated into one specific class (such as a "diversity" or
"race" course). Yet the tendency for faculty to be overwhelmed
by expanding their already packed 2-year MSW curriculum will pose some
practical barriers to implementation. Even if faculty create space to
include CRT content, issues of faculty preparation and teaching methods
remain. We acknowledge that most faculty are not familiar with the
lexicon of CRT or its applications to social work, and that teaching and
applying this material requires a specific set of knowledge and skills.
We view this absence of faculty preparation as probably the greatest
barrier to including CRT in courses throughout the social work
curriculum, as well as in specific courses promoting an appreciation for
diversity and cultural competence skills.
Moreover, student fieldwork is a critical component of the MSW
student learning experience. If awareness of and critical perspectives
on racism are not applied to the fieldwork experience, students may lose
sight of CRT's ties to social work problems, theories, and
interventions. Furthermore, the increased demand for evidence-based
practice and the growing influence of managed care models in agency
environments can thwart student efforts toward advocacy and empowerment
of clients. The opportunity to apply CRT skills in the field can
facilitate social justice actions within such constraints at both
individual and systems levels. We recognize this as a great challenge,
because students who are taught from a CRT perspective may not find a
place to voice their perspectives in their fieldwork. This limitation
speaks to the ongoing need for social work faculty and field instructors
to communicate about students' current curriculum so that their
field experiences can complement their classroom work and the bridge
between theory and practice can be fortified.
Finally, as Schiele (2007) states, there were logical and
historically persuasive reasons for diversity education to expand its
focus to include social and cultural groups other than racial or ethnic
categories. Clearly marginalization and oppression are complex social
processes that are found along many axes of social difference, not just
race. CRT addresses the central problem of eclipsing race under the
"multicultural umbrella" and at the same time fully
acknowledges the potential risks and implications of focusing on one
form of oppression at the expense of others. By advocating a
multidimensional analytic framework, CRT emphasizes the need to explore
how the intersectionality of oppressed statuses manifests across
individuals, communities, and social settings. However, CRT does not
necessarily provide a clear road map for teaching about all forms of
oppression simultaneously. Educators with an interest in integrating CRT
at this level will have to use their ingenuity to help students make
sense of the connections between racism and other oppressions, as well
as the impact of multiple and sometimes indiscernible oppressions on
Nearly 50 years past the civil rights movement, evidence suggests
that racism continues to fracture American society. Statistics on
well-being and life expectancy from 1970 to 2003 reflect substantial and
enduring differences across racial and ethnic groups, with people of
color carrying a disproportionate burden of mental and physical disease
and preventable death (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
2004). In 2006, among the 47 million uninsured people in the United
States, only 10.8% were White (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith,
2007). Income and poverty rates for the same year ranked Whites as
second highest in median income and lowest in poverty, African Americans
as lowest in median income and highest in poverty, and people of
Hispanic origin as second lowest in both income and poverty. Asians
ranked second lowest in poverty and earned the highest income of all
groups (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2007). A 2006 survey of 25 cities conducted
by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that ethnic minorities comprised
61% of the homeless population; of that number, a striking 42% were
African American (National Coalition for the Homeless, 2008). Finally,
various dissimilarity indices used to calculate the extent of
ethnic/racial segregation in 2000 (using Whites as the reference group)
confirm longstanding patterns of segregation. African Americans were the
most segregated group, followed by people of Hispanic origin, Asian
Pacific Islanders, American Indians, and Native Alaskans, respectively
(U.S. Census Bureau, 2002).
Although it may be comforting for many to think that we can afford
to be "race neutral" in our analysis of social welfare
institutions, policies, and practices, the existence of these
disparities indicates that a color-blind mentality will not solve some
of our most enduring and systemic social divisions and inequities.
Social work is ultimately concerned with maximizing the potential of all
humans to lead healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives. With this
charge, we must continually push ourselves, our training materials, and
our teaching practices to address the systemic barriers that impede the
realization of these goals for all people, both locally and globally.
CRT's philosophical and analytical strategies can advance our
efforts in antiracist pedagogy; through new insights and techniques we
can better understand and concretely address the noted problems of our
standard teaching tools.
Now the challenge of integrating new ideas begins.
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Laura S. Abrams
University of California at Los Angeles
Jene A. Moio
University of California at Los Angeles
Laura S. Abrams is associate professor and Jene Molo is lecturer at
the University of California at Los Angeles.
A portion of this article was presented at the Council on Social
Work Education's Annual Program Meeting in San Francisco, October
27-30, 2007. The authors wish to thank Joy Crumpton, Gerry Lavina, and
Sofya Bagdasaryan for their collaborative work in developing a Critical
Race Theory curriculum.
Address correspondence to Laura S. Abrams, University of California
at Los Angeles, Department of Social Welfare, 3250 Public Affairs
Building, PO Box 951656, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1656; e-mail: