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On Black Death - A Social Work Call to Action

Friday, May 29, 2020   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Algeria Wilson
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On Black Death

    A Social Work Call to Action

Over the past few months, we have been inundated with constant reminders that black lives still do not matter in today’s society. The reductive quantification of black lives continues to happen in various facets and we are reminded that black death is America's foundation.  

The coronavirus pandemic swept through communities of color like a thief in the night, stealing parents, grandparents, children and siblings, leaving grief, trauma, and economic and educational instability. We continue to see black death and violence at the hands of white racists — Amhaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Sha’Teina Grady El. Again and again, we have had to worry about our safety in the midst of it all. We wonder if we would be safe in our homes, on a jog, at the park — or would some well-intentioned and highly aware white racist decide today would be our last day on Earth? 

A recent New York Times article noted there have been over 100,000 deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19. Of these 100,000 deaths, a disproportionate number have been people with low socioeconomic status from urban areas. The Atlantic Covid Tracking Project and the Antiracism Center examined the intersection of coronavirus and race. To date, the project identified that black people are dying at two times the rate of other races in the U.S. due to COVID-19. In Michigan, cases have surpassed 56,000 — and 40% of those deaths have been African American people despite African Americans making up only 14% of the state's population. Whether dying at the hands of racist white people or due to systems constructed and upheld by white supremacy and patriarchy, black death is something America has normalized. 

Of the many ways to kill the black body, the most successful has been systemic. COVID-19 exposed how our systems disproportionately impact African Americans and continue to keep us oppressed. Poverty is not the reason African Americans are dying due to COVID-19 or police brutality, racism is. African Americans have been blamed for their death, their chronic illnesses, and even for protesting. However, due to stereotypes, communication barriers and lack of health care coverage, African Americans receive less care and lower quality of health care services, making chronic illness and untimely death the inevitable result. 

Sentencing disparities, selective enforcement of drug laws, and surveillance of black people and black communities are just a few reasons more black people are in jails and prisons and are dying at the hands of police. The lack of equity, justice and the perpetuation of historical trends toward a lack of care for black lives leads to continuous rage and a quest to be heard. Some call these acts riots, others a movement toward freedom that we have desired for so long.

When it comes to social determinants of health, systems created and upheld by white supremacy in the form of inequitable policies keep African Americans oppressed. Inequitable policies in urban planning such as redlining, zoning, unfair mortgage lending practices and gentrification segregated the haves from the have nots. White flight, urban revitalization and other factors increased segregation of African Americans from white Americans. This is seen today in educational opportunities, lack of economic mobility, lack of transportation, lack of resources, constant environmental hazards and further investment in the criminal legal system. The ways in which we divest from our communities of color — not fully funding transportation, health, mental health, substance abuse, reproductive health, and so many more systems — creates a daily struggle for survival for African American lives. 

What black people have learned, however, is not to place our survivorship in the hands of others. Far too often, especially in the field of social work, we have seen the historical trends driven predominantly by white women to treat those of different ethnic backgrounds and lower socioeconomic status as if they must be saved from themselves, swooping into a community or a life for a brief time, playing white savior, and then leaving just as quickly. Little of this results in meaningful, lasting change. As a result, African Americans push our mourning to the side, work twice as hard, don’t rest and focus on getting the job done, “doing what we have to do to get by.” 

While so many of our white counterparts during COVID-19 are working from home or taking mental health days, blacks do not have the same luxury because we are essential workers, caretakers, working in advocacy and trying to move the needle to survive and continue the quest for universal freedom. 

The weight of this collective deliverance takes a toll, and when we seek mental health services, finding someone of color who we can share our collective experiences with for healing and self-care can be hard. Far too often I walk into powerful rooms seeking to carve out a space of equity and justice for my community only to be faced with the fact that I am often the only one in the room. In those spaces I no longer have the privilege of speaking just for myself or my membership; I must use every identity lens I have and speak from a collective voice all while code-switching and making sure to balance an assertive tone with one that could be perceived as aggressive. During times like this when grief is sharp and the weight of changing systems that have been in place for so long becomes heavier, black people need white people, white social workers, and white women to act. 

NASW-Michigan will be hosting a series of conversations regarding racial justice at the intersection of social work. The first meeting, A Social Work Conversation on Racial Justice During COVID-19 (Black Death, White Fragility, and Police Brutality), will take place from 5:30–7 p.m. June 8. Register here.  

Additional ways in which you can act:

  1. Admit and accept the history of America and your community right where you stand, how your ancestors contributed to that history, and how you benefit daily from the privilege of being white. 

  2. Take up with all eagerness an effort to learn and do better. That means reading about the struggle of communities of color — you often have more access to educational materials than we do, and we cannot be your sole teachers; many are working to understand our own history. This anti-racism resource guide is a start.

  3. Have discussions with fellow white people, share your knowledge and then share your collective power (funding, resources, knowledge with black people and people of color).

  4. Speak up. Do not silence us, but when you hear or see something that perpetuates white supremacy and racist ideology, call it out! There can be civility in conflict, but nothing can be confronted if not addressed. 

  5. Show up all the time in your home, with your friends and in your board rooms. Come to protests, do your racial justice healing work, support black-owned businesses, disinvest from systems and organizations that do not create equitable outcomes for us, vote in a favor that is not just your own, and do not monetize or try and capitalize off of our stories.

  6. Employ black staff, and increase black representation on your board, not for appearances or to make them do all of the racial justice work, but so you can listen to them. Also, give your black staff paid time off to mourn and deal with their mental health during these times.

  7. Focus on funding programs that are driven by those closest to the problem and/or those working in the community. Invest in what has been proven to be racially and ethnically responsive and participatory.

These are just a few ways you can play an active role, do not wait until the next black death makes the news to move you to action. We are weary. We need you to begin doing the hard work today.

Additional Resources


Attend NABSW’s symposium on the plight of being black in America - May 30

Join one of NASW Michigan’s workgroups to actively lead in advocacy

Join NASW-Michigan Legislative and Social Policy Committee - Get involved

MDHHS- Stay Well Mental Health hotline

Therapy for Black girls 

Therapy for Black Men

Therapy for Black LGBTQPIA+

Read NASW’s Statement on Black Lives

Support Legislation that can make an impact

Watch educational talks worth spreading



Algeria K. Wilson, MSW

Director of Public Policy

National Association of Social Workers, Michigan Chapter



Judith A. Krause says...
Posted Friday, May 29, 2020
Thank you so much for writing!

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