Social Workers challenge injustice. This is one of the ethical principles of our profession. Time and again, the killings of and violence toward Black people at the hands of the police are met with excuses. “He wasn’t cooperating.” “It was protocol.” “He had a record.” None of these excuses justifies shooting to kill. Each time we see these videos of violent, often deadly, police reactions to situations like the one in Kenosha, we are enraged by the inhumanity and aghast by the decisions too many police officers make, because whether we are social workers, independent citizens, or just human beings with a conscience, we know it is not right. The sheer volume and velocity of such incidents only reinforce this view. The fact that many, if not most, officers who perpetrate acts of such senseless violence are never held accountable communicates to the world that victims, especially Black victims, of police violence do not matter. They are not important. We should all just move on with our day and give total deference to police officers whose behaviors must never be questioned. When entire communities of people no longer trust an institution, indeed when they intensely fear that institution, the problem is the institution.
As two individuals who hold leadership positions in social work education, we feel called to speak out against injustices. The latest injustice right here in Wisconsin, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha—multiple times at close range in the back—is numbing, horrific and traumatizing. BLACK LIVES MATTER. The fact that this shooting occurred right in front of his three children and his partner only makes it more horrific because, as social workers, we know how pervasive and long-lasting the effects of trauma can be. But the harm of police violence is not contained to those directly involved. It permeates the psyche of whole communities, of entire groups of people, and although many may dismiss this claim, it permeates and degrades society as a whole. It creates and perpetuates trauma and despair. And when nothing meaningful is ever done to make it stop, it creates rage. We cannot, as a society, be lulled into believing that what we have now is the only way. We cannot become inured to police brutality and violence because it is as common as a Midwest rainstorm. What we have now should not be the end goal.
Imagine a society that believes in the humanity of all of its members and truly invests in them by creating equitable, high quality opportunities for all to pursue their potential. Schools that are fully funded, environmentally healthy, and equitably equipped and staffed. Jobs that pay a reasonable living wage. A health care system that doesn’t exclude or bankrupt people, and the same for higher education systems. Safe, affordable housing. A rigorous food safety net. A transportation infrastructure that is safe and accessible. Access to a reliable internet connection. These things, to just name a few, should be our end goals. They should not be partisan choices. If we realized these goals, oppressive and incredibly expensive systems, such as law enforcement, criminal justice, and child welfare, would shrink dramatically. Almost any social problem you can name would be drastically reduced. Our society would be stronger, healthier, less divisive, and more productive.
We call on our state and local leaders in Wisconsin to act swiftly and decisively to respond not only to the horrific events of Sunday, but also to the urgent need to move us in a better direction as a state by making meaningful progress on any combination of the goals outlined above. It will mean being bold and making hard decisions. It will mean prioritizing our budgets differently. It will mean taking research on these topics into account. It will mean not only listening, but more importantly, acting. As an initial step, we applaud the action taken by the Governor and Lt. Governor to call a special session on August 31st to discuss transparency and police accountability after the shooting of Jacob Blake. As social workers, one thing we can do is commit to our profession’s newest Grand Challenge—Ending Racism—as a mechanism for facilitating large-scale collaborations to dismantle the continuing legacy of racism in America.
We hold out hope that there are more people in our nation than not who want it to be a better place, a fair place, an accepting place, a safe place for all people. There is an opportunity before us to define this moment, making a firmer and more rigorous commitment to social, economic, and racial justice, and building on the foundations of literally hundreds of years of struggle by those who have been continually oppressed and marginalized, to right the wrongs of our nation.
We can wait no longer.
David J. Pate, Jr., PhD
Associate Professor and Chair of the Social Work Department
Helen Bader School of Social Welfare
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Kristen S. Slack, PhD
Professor, Interim Director, and PhD Program Chair
Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work
University of Wisconsin-Madison