In 2017, Charles W. Mills made two statements in his book Black Rights/ White Wrongs. First, he claimed that political philosophy had sidestepped the question of racial justice. Second, he claimed that racial justice was the most urgent problem of our time. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a black man, was killed in Minneapolis Minnesota by Derek Chavin a white cop. Floyd’s untimely and unfair death sparked a wave of protests against police brutality, a global affirmation that black lives matter, and a renewed and passionate interest in the question of racial justice. The intellectual and the regular individual stand together at this point in history - both interested in solving the question of what racial justice requires.
But, how do we solve a problem without knowing what the problem is? How do we decide what racial justice requires without knowing what racial justice means? I realize that it is easy to say that George Floyd should not have died. It is easier still to say that Derek Chavin should be arrested, charged, convicted, and incarcerated. It is easiest to say this kind of police behavior should be always and everywhere shunned. Still, it is a bit harder to say exactly why this killing is racial. It is even harder to say how this kind of killing is precisely related to white supremacy in our current world. It is most hard to say what the practical steps should be in order to make sure this kind of killing never happens again.
The protests are powerful. The difficulty in finding answers and solutions is palpable. There is a consensus that Derek Chavin and his associates should be charged and convicted of something. At the University of Michigan School of Social Work there has been a robust conversation about what must be done that involves fundraising, curriculum changes, online talk, counseling, and anti-racist training for white students and teachers. The Transformative Justice Coalition and others have called for a movement to defund the police. Reverend Al Sharpton mentioned focusing on a movement for police accountability by framing the annual celebration of the 1963 March on Washington around this issue. Charles Williams, Herbert Sanders, and other leaders in Detroit have for years echoed calls for diversity on police forces, a residential requirement attached to police employment, and stronger legal tools that will lead to the successful criminal prosecution of bad law enforcement actors. Kimberle Crenshaw has continued to tie George Floyd to Breonna Taylor. She reminds us of the patriarchal tug of our own calls for justice that seem to make black women invisible as leaders and victims. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has a renewed interest in police training and ending implicit bias on police departments in Michigan. There is a renewed interest in this aspect of racial justice. However, there are a multitude of responses many of them as old as the issue itself.
The activists can organize. We need them too. The faith leaders can speak hope and pray. The therapists can help stabilize our mental health. The politicians can talk about the need for policy. But, what should the social worker do? What should the person committed not only to social justice, but evidence-based intervention do? I think the social worker and other social scientists should do three things. First, gather, organize, and interpret the evidence. Second, think deeply with philosophers about what social justice means and requires. Third, combine theory and data to develop a host of interventions that can be tracked, evaluated, and implemented nationally.
Gather, Organize, and Interpret the Evidence
There is so much data that needs to be gathered, organized, interpreted. Do statues of racists and southern civil war leaders breed a culture that promotes racism? Is racism only a bias? Is it a social - economic relationship that determines how private wealth is distributed? Does diversity, equity, and inclusion work? Do police departments have or need a universal code of conduct? How do the personal backgrounds of officers' influence law enforcement outcomes? Do social workers enhance the work of the risk management professionals that advise law enforcement? What do we think? What do we need to study? What do we want to study? Is our approach mixed methods, quantitative, qualitative? The protests are passionate. But sustained change will require a slow, steady, and systemic approach that begins with gathering data.
Think Deeply with Philosophers about What Social Justice Means and Requires
There is no single definition of social justice. I believe there is no single definition of racial justice either. Additionally, there are debates about the ontological, metaphysical, and epistemological status of the method and theory used when thinking about justice. Still, racism, the logic of racism, white supremacy, and racial domination are undertheorized. The data must be collected. But, the theoretical lens and intellectual imagination around race, national shame, and racial domination must be prepared to integrate and interpret that data in ways that do not whitewash and sanitize the conclusion.
Combine Theory and Data to Develop Multiple Interventions
The unique opportunity that racial justice presents is the opportunity to develop interventions, change professional and academic cultures and demonstrate the value of intellectualism to real social problems. The intellectually engaged and evidence informed practitioner stands ready to change the world. Beyond the passionate ad hoc response we see today, this practitioner is prepared to implement something that can be evaluated, enhanced, and reduplicated.
We can blame the president. We can blame the culture. We can blame the police. We can blame ourselves. But this is not the mode or mood of someone committed to a helping profession. We do not blame. We intervene. We change. We do social work. We are social workers.
David Alexander Bullock, MSW Candidate at the University of Michigan School of Social Work | Twitter: @Dalexanderb