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Race, Racism and Social WorkContemporary issues and debates$

Michael Lavalette and Laura Penketh

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9781447307082

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: May 2014

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447307082.001.0001

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The catalysers: ‘black’ professionals and the anti-racist movement

The catalysers: ‘black’ professionals and the anti-racist movement

(p.53) Three The catalysers: ‘black’ professionals and the anti-racist movement
Race, Racism and Social Work

Charlotte Williams

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the strategies for implementing anti-racist practice. In the 1980s the anti-racist social work movement argued that effective anti-racist practice would also require the significant recruitment of black and Asian workers who could challenge practice on the frontline and change the culture of social work organisations. This chapter revisits some of the early 1980s debates and traces the history of the anti-racist social work movement and the role of early leaders of that movement. But rather than an overt focus on policy regimes and bureaucracies, which many in the 1980s became concerned to focus on, it argues we need to look at the practices and the networks of anti-racist practitioners ‘the catalysers’ who can bring about significant organisational changes to services.

Keywords:   Anti-racist social work, Black and Asian social workers, Catalysers of change, Black and Asian service user networks, Anti-racist practice

In this chapter Williams looks at the strategies for implementing anti-racist practice. In the 1980s the anti-racist social work movement argued that effective anti-racist practice would also require the significant recruitment of black and Asian workers who could challenge practice on the frontline and change the culture of social work organisations. Williams revisits some of the early debates of the 1980s and traces the history of the anti-racist social work movement, and the role of the early leaders. However, rather than an overt focus on policy regimes and bureaucracies, which many in the 1980s became concerned to focus on, she argues that we need to look at the practices and the networks of anti-racist practitioners, ‘the catalysers’ who can bring about significant organisational changes to services.


At various points in post-war history, the recruitment of black and minority ethnic individuals into the social services workforce has received government sponsorship for a number of reasons: to address labour shortages, for symbolic and tokenistic imaging of public service agencies or for its transformatory potential. The bedrock assumption of this latter line of argument is that altering the racial composition of the social service workforce ensures that services would become more attuned and, therefore, more accessible to the ‘special needs’ of black service users and act as a counter to institutional racism. This strategy has steadily gained in momentum in public services in the post-Stephen Lawrence era, with a range of public bodies and agencies seeking to attract representation from minority ethnic individuals within their ranks. In many ways social work, like education, was at the forefront of this trend from the 1970s onwards, signalling the key role minority (p.54) workers could play in the production of so called ‘ethnically sensitive’ service delivery (ADSS 1978).

The decade from the early 1980s can be identified as a significant period of ‘black recruitment’ in social work, when largely left-wing Labour-controlled local authorities sought to incorporate the welfare demands arising from grassroots minority ethnic communities and political activists and translate them into local government equal-opportunities policies. This was overtly the liberal settlement of a central state seeking to deflect a tense and unsettled period of race relations. Gail Lewis’s seminal argument (2000: 206) proposed that the employment of black/Asian (largely female) social workers articulated with this very specific ‘moment of racial time’ in the UK, in which racial discourses of black and Asian family lifestyles suggested the need for a political response of control and appeasement. Social work accordingly came to occupy a very specific place in the repertoire of government strategies of the time in assuaging dissent, moralising and normalising black and Asian families, and mediating contestation over welfare resources. This moment led directly to the recruitment of black/Asian social workers who had hitherto principally occupied ancillary roles in such departments, largely as unqualified social work assistants or residential and home care-workers (see Bryan et al 1985). However, this settlement was fundamentally flawed in a number of ways, not least because of the competing ways in which the multiplicity of local authorities interpreted their equal opportunities brief and, indeed, the ways in which these equality ambitions became entangled with professional discourses.

If this racial moment has passed and other statist multiculturalist ventures overlaid it, it represents an interesting point for us to ask ‘What happened to anti-racist social work? There remains a substantial number of black and minority ethnic (BME) workers in the social services system whose positioning vis-à-vis the racial-justice project forms a complex dynamic. Contemporary policy and practice and, indeed, professional discourses have successfully changed the terminology, the rules of engagement, the priorities and the perspectives of the race debate such that this constituency of workers has apparently lost its political significance and visibility.

This chapter returns to the debates about the role of ‘black’ professionals within the anti-racist movement, as practitioners, academics and students, looking specifically at their potential as catalysers in terms of political-agenda setting, framing and claims making, and critically debates their ambivalent positioning within ‘White’ public-sector institutions today. The term ‘black’ itself has (p.55) been subject to considerable debate and transformation in this racial discourse, but I use it in this chapter in the way in which it was first inscribed in the debates in social work to encompass those of us of black, mixed and Asian descent. This chapter tracks the incorporation of black professionals into mainstream social work practice and education and training, and it critically debates aspects of their positioning within the anti-racist struggle and raises questions about shifts in the locus of effort for change in improving the lives and circumstances of BME peoples.

Black professionals and social work: infiltration

Local government can be said to be the pivotal site of anti-racist professional activism, and social work as a profession has provided a key arena where such activities have been played out. In a post-Scarman (1981) Britain in which the demands for appropriate welfare services were being more and more forcefully articulated by BME individuals, grassroots groups and activists, and in which government sought to muster a response to the ‘problem’ of immigrant minorities, the recruitment of BME professionals potentially held the promise of a more responsive service-delivery and a medium for countering institutional discrimination.

The core of this idea emerged most forcefully in local government of the 1980s under a variant of what Paul Gilroy (1987: 136) has called ‘municipal anti-racism’. This particular brand of anti-racism engaged local authorities as an instrument of change in terms of actively campaigning against racism, targeting funding and initiatives towards marginalised groups, and recruiting from the ranks of underrepresented groups. This 1980s equal opportunities politics inevitably resulted in an increased recruitment of black and minority ethnic people into the professions, and especially into occupations such as social work, where the remit was to respond to locally based unmet needs using short-term section 11 funding made available under the Local Government Act 1966. This special funding of up to three-quarters of the cost of a post aimed at meeting the ‘special needs’ of minority ethnic communities led to the popularly called ‘section 11’ jobs. Singh (1992) argues that Black people were ‘climbing over each other’ for section 11 jobs, and black organisations were fighting among each other for a slice of local authority grant monies such that an ‘ethnic parochialism replaced black activism’ (1992: 23). Thus a twin tactic of cooption and divide and rule effectively operated to tame the street-based racial fury.

This recruitment was also an exploitation of a cheap pool of available labour. The position of the section 11 workers was very quickly (p.56) noted. Their status and remuneration was notably lower than their counterparts with similar workloads and responsibilities and they ‘often felt hopelessly isolated, misunderstood, at times snubbed and overwhelmed by totally impossible responsibilities and an unsupportive administrative structure’ (Cheetham et al 1981: 93). The anomaly was that far from commanding a positive value for their work, these workers were placed in marginal positions within organisations, found themselves overburdened, subject to conflicting and additional demands by comparison with their white counterparts, and experienced high levels of workplace discriminations. Their relative powerlessness, however, was not considered an obstacle to their potential to operate as change agents.

The question of black professionals’ ability to achieve change formed the basis of a study by Paul Stubbs undertaken as a PhD research project in 1983/84. Stubbs (1985) addressed the question ‘what difference do Black social workers make?’ based on evidence from interviews undertaken in two London boroughs. He sought to explore the position of black social workers along three main lines of enquiry: the extent to which social work functions as part of the state apparatus or whether it can achieve relative autonomy (as a site of resistance) within the statutory context; the hierarchical nature of social service bureaucracies that determine particular types of manager/worker relationship in which few managers are black; and the claims regarding social worker–client relationships producing heightened responsiveness. Stubbs’ work exposed the anomalies and contradictions that lie at the heart of the ‘ethnic sensitivity’ model deployed within local authorities of the 1980s, which he argued produced particular types of pressure for black workers forcing them into roles as ‘good black social worker’ that at best posed no threat to the reproduction of racist structures and at worst actively aided their reproduction (1985: 17). The misconception of the role of BME staff compounded the often untenable position of such staff within largely white organisations: assimilate or face marginalisation and exclusion. Stubbs concluded that the actions of black workers, when they form strong collective political groups within workplaces, may make some inroads into social work practices but that fundamentally they could only but fail to permeate the institutional reproduction of racism within state social work agencies. The working practices, ideologies and organisational modes lay largely beyond the scope of their influence. He pointed forward to a form of ‘black professionalism’ based on ‘strong, effective black managers and senior social workers’ that might penetrate social services departments in the longer term along the lines of models apparent in the US (1985: 26). In this sense (p.57) Stubbs did not let go of the idea of a constituent group of racialised actors that could transform service delivery.

By contrast Lewis’s (2000) work, which tracked this ‘new cadre of social workers’ (2000: 8), is scathingly critical of what she calls ‘the black staff model’ (2000: 129), which she argues pivots on the assumption of essentialised cultural knowledges. Lewis problematised the privileging of ‘black experience’ or ‘black perspectives’ when she provocatively asked ‘What, if any, are the particular skills or attributes which black women can bring to social work; and why are these important?’ (1996: 29), and went on to critically explore what is meant by this experience and how it may be deployed authoritatively but only as part of what she calls ‘occupational situatedness’ (1996: 53). While she is not rejecting the added value that such subjective foundational experience can have in client/worker relationships, for Lewis it works in complex ways within and across racial category and is linked or mapped onto professional discourses producing a ‘simultaneity of discourse’. As black women, she argued, these social workers’ experience speaks across both race and gender and enables them ‘to move within an across discourses as they communicate in modes of identification and differentiation with those who constitute an element of themselves’ (1996: 53). It is accordingly both a (non-)hegemonic message and a situational one that must reflect their position of relative powerlessness within organisational hierarchies, where they seldom hold managerial positions because of their race and gender.

Lewis work calls for a reconceptualisation of how race/ethnicity is utilised to position these subjects in relations of power (2000: 131), taking into consideration the contest over the meanings given to ethnic difference and to the ways in which ethnicity can intersect with other social status such as age, class, gender or sexuality to structure experience. Her postmodern approach argued for complexity in the intersections of relations of power that structure both the lives of client’s and those of the worker, in which ethnicity is just one of a number of factors at play and may not be the primary factor at any particular time. Ultimately, therefore, she refuted concepts such as ethnic matching in client/worker relationships or indeed the axiom that these women could influence agency ideologies and agenda.

For Lewis, black and Asian (largely women) social workers were effectively constituted as racial/ethnic subject by the state and were paradoxically provided with employment opportunities but, at the same time, this racialised status was the very factor that ultimately constrained their professional autonomy through determining for them a marginal positioning within the workforce. They became, in effect, (p.58) problematic for the organisation (Lewis 2000: 14). They were not team leaders, managers, top civil servants or chief executives but caught in the Catch 22 of being both valorised for their racialised experience and being undervalued for it (Prevatt-Goldstein 2002). Far from being in lead roles in relation to a new model of service delivery, in Prevatt-Goldstein’s terms the dominant ‘race based ethos’ of the organisation (2002: 777) essentialised, homogenised and exploited black workers on the one hand and negated their experience and skills on the other.

If the practice arena were to undergo change, so too this implied change to social work education and training, to its literature base and to its professional discourse. Alongside developments within SSDs (Social Services Departments) came the development of an academic literature reframing a professional discourse that had previously focused on responding to the particularised needs of minority ethnic groups to one resplendent with political, material and racial causality in individual and community distress (Ely and Denny 1987; Dominelli 1988). Individual treatment models were being rapidly decentred by an overtly radical anti-racist analysis and stance. The anti-racist project had been launched. Social work was interrogating itself and black professionals were crucially identified in their potential role as catalysers of this change: in the development of alternative perspectives, in advancing progressive initiatives as part of the broader black struggles against racism and for their ‘experience’ as part of minority communities themselves (Hutchinson-Reis 1989). Key grassroots groups and activists effectively formed a fundamental social movement that pushed this agenda from the bottom up and infiltrated professional discourses. Black workers both in the statutory and the voluntary sector were deployed as key agents and legitimators of this transformation (Alleyne 2002; Dabydeen et al 2008).

The partnership of local state social service departments and higher educational institutions under the oversight of the then regulating body the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) was the key medium for delivery on the new agenda within social work. CCETSW as an organisation was also cognizant of its need to get its own house in order and to recruit from the ranks of the BME population. Key movers and shakers were appointed to executive positions within the organisation with a specific brief to lead developments on race equality. The Black Perspectives Committee (1987–94) brought together academics, intellectuals, practitioners and activists to influence policy, practice, education and training issues. There was representation on this Committee from all four nations of the UK, which at the time secured the author’s recruitment to this (p.59) influential body. I took the messages ‘home’ and translated them into my own context in Wales pushing out the frontiers in remote and rural places (Williams and Short 1997). We, as black workers, had achieved presence – on the front line, in the teaching and training rooms, within the regulating body and were formulated as a black collective irrespective of the huge diversity of backgrounds, place, identity and experiences. The success of this cross UK forum was undoubtedly its high level of institutional support.

The movement: presence

There can be little doubting that the contributions made by BME professionals and students both within and beyond state institutions to the anti-racist effort within social work. Their physical labour, emotional investment and intellectual capital have been considerable. These day-to-day labours of love are important to recognise. They are the informal contributions and challenges to the unequal structures and practices within social work levied by these minority actors – work that is less quantifiable, visible or valued and that has for too long remained hidden from view. Their presence had both a caretaking and a ‘watchdog’ effect on practices within the bureaucracy. Recognition of these quiet narratives is important because these stories indicate the ways in which BME staff can and do muster strategies of resistance, mobilise counter cultures and act as active agents of change in their day-to-day work.

The momentum for change may have come from grassroots black activism but it was swiftly adopted and incorporated into the academy and the professional body and embodied in these catalysers. Alliances were formed across the service user/provider divide, across the lecturer/student divide, the practitioner/academic, and the statutory/voluntary sector divide pushed forward an agenda for change. Professional ideologies, which defined the nature of professional interventions, were questioned and reinterpreted. Types of skill and competency, the commitment to detachment of professional involvement with clients, the nature of leadership were all being reworked. The black managers that existed were cautioned that they had been inculcated with ‘essentially white conceptions of knowledge and practice that have been promoted within a white system’ (Husband 1991: 55) and invited to consider the ideology of professionalism as an important facet of institutional racism. Thus the proposition of a black professionalism was being advanced and black perspectives in social work was expounded in a growing literature (Singh 1992).

(p.60) One such set of tangible products that were developed from these networks were the CCETSW Curriculum Development (CD) materials, which in themselves were transformative both as a resource and perhaps even more importantly as a process. Stubbs (1995 quoted in Patel 2002: 37) speaks to the collective effort that were the CD materials:

Looking back the CD project represented some kind of new social movement in which in Audre Lorde’s terms differences were acknowledged and even celebrated and used as a force for change. We were united by recognition of the need for anti-racist change at all levels, including, crucially, the curriculum, and we developed some kind of collective action, which transcended hierarchies of white/black, teacher/student, and academic/practitioner. The CD texts are both a process and a product containing for all their faults, innovative curriculum material.

A number of such formal and informal networks emerged to take the anti-racist work forward that are significant in themselves to the notion of a cross national ‘collective action’. Some examples are the Association of Black Assessors, Black Probation Officers, Black Social Workers and Allied Professions – all of which offered advice, consultative work, training and crucially mentor support to black professionals. Strong links were formed with key non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with black communities. It was indeed a movement in the classic sense, a movement whose hegemonic grip held the seeds of its own downfall.

Lewis’s argument is that this was a very specific and time-limited period, which came to be very successfully eroded by the Thatcher government and the right-wing media as new discourses of service delivery emerged (Lewis 2000: 204). Sivanandan (1991), however, foresaw the fragmentation of the black struggle and its disengagement from the street anti racism that spawned it: ‘firstly on the basis of the bourgeoisification of black people. Secondly on the emptying of “black” of its political content’ (1991: 43). Others in this volume have documented the demise of the movement, what is perhaps of relevance here is the notion of fragmentation and bourgeoisification. One thread in theorising the question – what happened to anti-racism? – must be a consideration of the assertion that somehow these critical actors themselves were implicated both in terms of the increasing assertion that the term black no longer encompassed the various identity claims that (p.61) differentiated them and indeed their own comfort and instrumentalism within state institutions, which arguably deradicalised them.

Paul Stubbs’ anticipation of the rise of the middle-class black professional – conscious of itself as a substantive grouping and able to use its power to effect change has not emerged within social work despite continued and consistent recruitment into the profession. Currently just under 15% of the social work workforce are identified as being from BME backgrounds. Of the workforce as a whole 70% are known to be white, around 10% are known to be from the census black categories and 4.3% are Asian (GSCC Annual Report 2010). The Council with Social Services Responsibilities in England estimated around 6% of the workforce are recorded as of unknown ethnic origin. Interestingly, the not-knowns are largely recorded in the shires where it may be that ethnic monitoring is not robust or where people are more reluctant to mark out their ethnic origin. The BME staff whose ethnic origin was known mainly work in Inner London where 46% of social work staff are from BME backgrounds. Percentages of BME representation above the England average minority ethnic population of 9% were recorded by all London boroughs. Eight have a high percentage known to be from BME groups: Brent (63%), Ealing (49%), Hackney (59%), Haringey (53%), Lambeth (61%), Newham (55%), Tower Hamlets (54%) and Waltham Forest (54%). The highest outside London was in Birmingham (40%) (National Statistics 2011).

Despite these concentrations – the ‘voice’ of black professionals in social work is not a collective one. Their voice is strangely muted and their potential political clout diminished: but are they the self contented bourgeoisie that Sivanandan suggested?

Being black professionals or professionally black?: ‘outsiders within’

The experiential narrative of this ‘cadre of black workers’ within social work is surprisingly under-researched and under-theorised (Butt and Davey 1997; Lewis 2000; Prevatt-Goldstein 2002). In the main, it is the stuff of blogs and anecdote that form the body of evidence and in the last 10 years there is a deafening silence. This is not the case in relation to those of us in Higher Education institutions (HEIs).

Accounts from the ranks of what I call Blacademics of the dilemmas of managing their positioning in HEIs have come from the broader feminist literature or from disciplines such as education (Ahmed and Swan 2006; Mirza 2006). Concerns about BME staff in the HEI sector have long been documented with extensive evidence amassed to show (p.62) The catalysers: ‘black’ professionals and the anti-racist movementthat BME staff are underrepresented at senior levels in HEIs and subject to a significant ‘race penalty’ in terms of promotion and progress in the sector (Equality Challenge Unit [ECU] 2011). The recent ECU research finds a disconnect between policy and implementation by reference to management practices of recruitment, workload allocation and promotion – all of which impact negatively on BME staff, with the worst instances of discriminatory treatment related to casual racism in the behaviour of managers.

The majority of BME staff who participated in the research had experienced the damaging effects of being treated in a subordinating or excluding way because of their race. This highlights that the daily experience of working relationships and institutional support matter a great deal. The corrosion of confidence created by lack of respect, support and recognition affected some BME staff so severely that they simply gave up.

(ECU 2011: 22)

The ECU research indicates that BME staff are less likely than non-BME staff to be in leadership and management positions in institutions. The number from minority backgrounds who have found their way from qualifying training to the front line, and on to become professors of social work, can be counted on one hand despite the relative healthy recruitment into the profession from the 1980s onwards. Social work is a very white profession in its higher echelons and its occupational culture. Like our counterparts in the field we spend years and years trying within this most benign and liberal of professions to break (p.63) through the ‘ivory ceiling’ with little or no sponsorship from our white colleagues. When we do we may be subject to allegations of being ‘uppity’, assimilated, losing sight of our responsibilities to those we should represent, over-promoted or as has been too often said to me ‘you’ve done well because you’re black’.

Punwar (2004) refers to us as ‘space invaders’, somehow ‘out of place’ occupying spaces not previously attained by black people or not seen as being rightfully in these positions. In her conference presentation Cathy Aymer (2010) depicted us as aliens in the host institution and Mirza uses the term ‘disorientation’ to describe ‘the double-take as you enter the room, as you are not supposed to be there’ (Mirza 2006: 105). As external examiner (not the student), as chair of the recruitment panel (not the cleaner), as senior team leader or director of children’s services (not the service user), as just being myself (not the race equality adviser) in these ways we face and then challenge the assumptive world of social work. Mirza (2006) poignantly highlights many of the processes of exclusion that Blacademics encounter. Beyond the immediate disorientation there is infantalisation, whereby you are assumed to be less capable of being in authority. There is the burden of invisibility, not being able to be yourself, or hyper-surveillance, whereby any mistakes are magnified as confirming incompetence or misplaced authority. In all of these ways the black worker has to work harder on credentialism, legitimacy and managing the confines of stereotypical expectations (Back 2004). There are costs to being in the HEI, says Mirza (2006), costs both emotional and psychic to BME students, costs to academics, costs to practitioners negotiating what Back has referred to as ‘the sheer weight of whiteness’ (2004: 1). Prevatt-Goldstein’s (2002) evidence from a very small-scale study in social work largely confirms this type of experience. She finds workers experiencing major stress in managing additional tasks and the conflicting expectations of colleagues and black service users, having to over-justify themselves and being subject to isolation, over-scrutiny and interpersonal racism, and yet deeply concerned about their contribution to the wellbeing of BME service users.

Managing this positioning is not without a hefty price. In very few cases is it without pain. In his classic statement Du Bois (1903) identified the special responsibility of ‘facing both ways’ and the additional duties the black professional carries in respect of their wider constituency. Like Gramsci’s (1971) organic intellectuals who retain their affiliation with the sections of civil society that they represent and who must play a key role in advocacy and change – we have work we must do. In addition, we must navigate a terrain riven with casual, inadvertent, banal racisms and confront the ‘ethnic’ dilemma – to pass or to claim. (p.64) For ethnicity is fluid, contextual, contingent, variously visible or not, it involves both the ‘voluntary’ assumption of self, claiming as well as the ascription of that identity by others, as McLaughlin (2007: 72) powerfully acknowledge when she asks:

Should one seek to maximise one’s own power, influence and possibilities of success in a given set of circumstances by disclosure or nondisclosure of some traits?

This decision making is, as she points out, strategic, instrumental and moral in nature:

The behaviours involved in manipulating social identity may be argued to be a form of work, and a burden of work largely unknown to those from majority groups. The work is that of securing legitimacy and credibility of presence; presence being inherently questionable in relation to people identified in terms of minority group traits’

(McLaughlin 2007: 73)

This extra work is complex and significant in a number of ways. It strikes to the heart of the hidden costs of the anti-racist project: the emotional investment of these actors that lies unrecognised. Patel’s account (1995; 2002) of her time as a civil servant at the helm of ‘The Firm’ – CCETSW’s Race Equality Officer – is one such valuable contribution to social work history for which there is little such documentation. Using the third person she describes the mission to implement CCETSW’s pioneering anti-racism policy:

She was fired by a strong ideological commitment to fight racism, but was aware of the limitations of individual workers and their ability to challenge institutional racism. … She also recognised the context in which She and others in the area were required to operate: many regarded the goals of anti-racist policies as a search for something unachievable. This attitude, She felt, by and large reflected a generalised (but fortunately not en masse) resistance to change, as well as, in varying quantities inertia, narrow mindedness, short term thinking and racism. As for her own position, marginalisation, work overload and colleagues attitudes that anti-racism is not proper work were all to be expected – a (p.65) situation no different to the experience of many other black people.

(Patel 1995: 17–18)

The ambivalent positioning and fortunes of black students on social work programmes has perhaps received more attention not least because of their startling failure rates in qualifying training (de Gale 1991; de Souza 1991; Pink 1991; Channer and Doel 2009). Interestingly the HEI statistics indicate social work is a discipline of choice for many BME students given their preference for vocational training degrees and yet overall they fare badly.

The work experiences and well being of these individuals is clearly a factor that circumscribes their ability to ‘speak out’ against personal injustices and to influence and transform services. Patel provides insights into this story:

And what of the human, personal, economic (job wise) costs to those … who take a stand against such behaviour?

This takes us to the heart of how black professionals conduct themselves and organisations’ response to black professionals who are in the system. Black professionals with an anti-racism remit are a nuanced sub set of this group. After many months, She reflects on the context in which She arrived in the Firm. ‘She’ll set the place ablaze’. ‘Do we need such posts when there are more pressing things to be done, such as child care work?’ ‘She’s only been employed because She’s black’. … She also knew that in the organisation the majority of black workers, as elsewhere, were to be found at lower levels in the organisational hierarchy; whereas black professionals such as herself were expected to be Jacks of all trades.

(Patel 1995: 28)

The dilemmas are complex and manifold. The anti-racist project as it emerged within social work did provide the context in which individuals could exercise their agency toward change as a collective but the price was to essentialise them and to essentialise their claims such that they were always vulnerable to marginalisation when the bandwagon moved on. Perhaps the important distinction here is between types of political struggle: those that reflect a community of interest and collective action, and those that reflect the myriad forms of control and resistance played out as a result of our differential experiences in the workplace. If at various moments the opportunity structure has enabled the emergence of black people as a community (p.66) of interest, there is nothing to suggest that they have been any the less active in both managing and addressing racisms in the micro-politics of their day-to-day existence within social service organisations and the academy.

As a result of such ruminating over the fixing of essentialised identities, more recent theorising has engaged with the ways in which race and ethnicity are ‘performed’ in particular contexts as opposed to being determining factors to action. In this sense people are neither black professionals nor professionally black but part of a complex apparatus in which anti-racism is situated and performed.

Loose cannons: white liberal institutions and the diversity mandate

If the ethnic-sensitivity professional discourse and the equal opportunities era of the 1980s provided a specific moment in racial time, then the emergence of the late 1990s diversity paradigm and the associated institutional responsibilities post-RRA 2000 provides another. The responsibility question is an interesting one: Whose business is anti-racism? In the 2000s the answer to the question came with the shift to institutional culpability for the reproduction of racisms.

For many black professionals the ‘diversity’ era as a formalised policy movement raises a number of issues in relation to their positioning. It brings into view the extent to which they take responsibility for this remit and undertake (or get burdened with) equalities ‘work’ on behalf of agencies; the extent to which their presence is usurped for the purpose of showcasing/imaging diversity within the organisation; the extent to which they tangibly benefit (or not) from improved working conditions and prospects as a result of equalities policies; and crucially what potential remains for the aspiration of equality activism?

Mirza (2006: 109) has argued that the diversity movement within the academy has had little to do with transforming the experiences of black female staff and students (2006). The most recent evidence from the ECU (2011) supports this assertion. Patel’s (1995) early account implies a similar situation within social work but there is a noticeable lack of evidence in relation to current experiences. While there exists some research evidence and monitoring data relating to BME NHS professionals and health-care staff, there is a serious evidence gap in relation to the social care-worker and social work (Williams and Johnson 2010). It is not that there have not been workforce surveys and workforce research particularly documenting the impact of neoliberal methodologies on social work practice and (p.67) social workers’ wellbeing, but the impacts of the modernisation agenda on minoritised groups has not been pursued. In the contemporary context of recession the precariousness of their position is exacerbated. BME workers may indeed be among some of the most vulnerable in the current economic climate and subject to the downward pressures of managerialist technologies and discriminatory practices in terms of recruitment, training and promotion. It is known that black workers are highly represented in the public sector and that they are less likely to be members of a union. In September 2010 as the recession in Britain began to take a grip, Diane Abbott put forward the claim that the planned government cuts to public services would hit BME workers harder than their white British counterparts because a higher proportion of their jobs were in the public sector (FullFact.org). There is little evidence to suggest equality policies will mitigate this ill wind.

Diversity action plans, equality statements, widening participation strategies, ethnic monitoring, audit and impact assessments all represent the ascendancy of the technocratic approach over the moral case for inclusion but, for Ahmed and Swan (2006: 97), these become ‘technologies of concealment’ whereby inequalities and distributions of power are hidden by measures of ‘good’ performance. For Ahmed diversity policy has been more about ‘speech acts’, more about saying than doing, and she suggests that these function to block rather than enable action. This type of critique could imply a narrowing of the scope for equalities politics, a de-radicalising and constraining of its effects and focus. Such equalities policies can effectively aid the politics of containment of black activism through subtle process of incorporation, assimilation, divide and rule.

Yet between the end points of marginalisation or assimilation there are huge sites of contestation in professional arenas where black professionals and their allies exert their agency. Hunter and Swan (2007: 377b) in editing a fascinating collection of essays that ‘trouble’ the traditional dichotomies in equalities studies, such as professional/activist, equality good/corporate diversity bad – put forward this space as an arena where a complex micro-politics in played out in fluid and contingent relationships between the state, activists and professionals. In this space those who will negotiate a path through the ambiguities and contradictions (the see-saw of hope/failure as they call it) that characterises much of this work manage to open up the potential for race equality work. This work is a complex of daily oscillations and contradictions that those involved in the messiness of equalities work must live with but one in which alliances and networks can be (p.68) mobilised. In the bringing together of human and non-human resources such as agendas, policies and protocols, equality work is translated, interpreted and acted upon. These actors are involved in ‘framing’ claims, in generating debates, in translating or ‘diversity interpretation’ and in deploying the ‘tools’ of a range of types of intervention to effect change (Hunter and Swan 2007b).

This type of theorising enables the emotional and intellectual complexities of being involved in such interventions, the partnerships that are forged in these processes, the points of resistance that are opened up and the ways in which contexts shape the work and in which infrastructures are profoundly relational to be noted. It is not simply a case of top-down policy or indeed concerted collective bottom up pressures but a dynamic constellation of activity:

rather than view professionals as complicit in the narrow bureaucratisation and quantification of inequalities and activists as ‘impotent’ in the face of managerialism, the very diversity of the infrastructure itself is constituted through a complex network of relations where activists, professionals, organisations and states are interdependent.

(Hunter and Swan 2007: 413a)

We, therefore, need to revisit the anti-racist project in social work and consider the ways in which the locus of change has been re-sited from notions of a black caucus or a critical partnership of black and white activists. Patel writing over 10 years ago (2002: 36) spoke of ‘those in charge of it…’ as if to identify a top-down model of action. Alternatively, questions have been asked about the dissipation of collective action and pointed to the demise of anti-racism as a social movement within social work. Social workers find themselves in the paradoxical position of acknowledging the persistence and pervasiveness of racism yet puzzling how to remobilise the effort, questioning where to look for the locus of change now that social work (as an institution) appears to have ‘moved on’.

Whose business is anti-racism?

Lots of arguments and debates have emerged recently that focus on a retheorising and reorientation of the anti-racist effort in the light of socio-demographic changes, the rise of Islamophobia, the shift from single strand to generic equalities legislation and measurement and the incorporation of race equality duties into organisational (p.69) behaviour. The anti racist project is rapidly being seen as ‘so eighties’, and somehow out of step with contemporary realities or at best embedded or mainstreamed. The literature and the anecdote cite the effect of neoliberalist methodologies as the culprit for this state of affairs. The logic of neoliberalism has, it is argued, served not only to strip the ‘race’ effort of its moral content through bureaucratic incorporation but also to fragment, demoralise and depoliticise social work itself such that the luxury of an anti-racist stance cannot be afforded. Much as this argument forms the dominant discourse within contemporary social work it does not explain why the profession has so easily coalesced around this position. Is it more the case that the profession has never found deep anti-racism comfortable because of what it implies for its liberal value base, its predominant methodological orientation, the normative whiteness of its elite profile? The lesson of the 1980s is one that suggests the profession focused far too heavily on the energy, passion and emotional commitment of a caucus of black people themselves; that the profession’s ownership of the mantle was tentative and provisional – nay ambivalent, the alliances thin, permissive and voluntaristic. It is such disavowal that keeps these issues beyond examination and permits racism to be sustained within the profession itself. For our own part we as black workers are easily dispersed and fragmented, vulnerable to the demands of the day job, relatively powerless and subject to being cut off from the fuel supply that is our social care workforce – our minority students and service users – those who are best placed to keep the flame burning. As any type of collective Black workers are too diverse, too conspicuous, too visible, too easily disabled or dismantled.

Institutional support means an environment conducive to debate, trial and error experimentation and risk taking in the allocation of leadership roles – all critical to nurturing of anti-racist effort. It means a blurring of boundaries between public institutions and the organs of civil society and a mutuality that has not yet been seen. Where the bureaucracy has failed so indeed has the profession. The reorientation of the professional discourse on race and ethnicity is everywhere present. We find ourselves in a moment when our models of analysis have proved wanting, when policy has failed those we seek to serve but when there is considerable uncertainty about the way forward and considerable disagreement about what are the appropriate models of analysis and action. The profession is subject to and acquiescent in the popularist and knee-jerk directives of government and it is unlikely that bodies such as the Health Professions Council or even the College of Social Work will significantly resist, reframe or reorientate these (p.70) debates. Yet anti racism is not a luxury, an ‘if we’ve got time’ set of tasks, or a special effort necessary for the special needs of a particular public. It is core to our primary business of rectifying injustices, of combating disadvantage and of speaking truth to power. It is in fact everyone’s business.


Black workers have made and continue to make a significant and important contribution to the transformation of services and to the anti-racist effort within social work. This chapter has illustrated the highly political terrain in which they negotiate these efforts within their day-to-day work and the ways in which this effort affects them individually and as a collective.

The argument I put forward here is that it is more useful to look at the ways in which anti-racism is being ‘performed’ by a range of actors with an investment in social justice: via strategies that are protective, resistant and proactive. This will take us beyond the bureaucracy to networks of alliance, productive relationships from which practices and projects are built and take hold, toward an analysis of contexts conducive to change, toward micro politics which emerge, form and mobilise in particular context at particular times and become critical to claims making, agenda setting and change. It will take us toward an analysis of how and why certain professional discourses emerge and take hold. This will necessarily be an uneven project, one that is dispersed and patchy, recognisable by its outcomes. The emphasis becomes one of capturing and capitalising on this potential, nurturing and evaluating it and collating it to form a sustainable bedrock of knowledge for analysis, action and intervention.

Suggested further reading

Bibliography references:

Hunter, S. and Swan, E. (2007) ‘Oscillating politics and shifting agencies: Equalities and diversity work and actor network theory’, Equal Opportunities International, Vol. 26(5): 402–19.

Williams, C. (1999) ‘Connecting anti-racist and anti-oppressive theory and practice: Retrenchment or reappraisal?’, British Journal of Social Work, 29: 211–30.