More than just a hashtag. A social work exploration of racial inequality in Detroit and steps to move us forward.

The May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policer officer sparked a nationwide call for systemic change and an end to racial inequality. Housed in the heart of Detroit, the Wayne State University School of Social Work (SSW) has chosen to approach the difficult conversations that have resulted from the racially charged murder of multiple African Americans head on as a leader for change.

On June 5th the SSW brought together three area experts for a panel discussion on the historical context of the racial divide in Detroit, the current crisis and what we as social work advocates can do moving forward to empower social change in our communities.

Moderated by Social Work Assistant Professor J. Lloyd Allen, panelists included criminal defense and family law attorney, Founder of McCaskey Law and current candidate for Wayne County Prosecutor Victoria Burton-Harris; Managing Partner of Trivium Community Economic Development, Member of the Toledo Social Unrest Task Force, SSW Board of Visitors Member and former President of New Detroit Paul Hubbard; and Chief Executive Officer of The Heat and Warmth Fund, SSW Board of Visitors Member and former Detroit City Council Member Saunteel Jenkins.

Panelists (from left): Victoria Burton-Harris, Paul Hubbard and Saunteel Jenkins

How did we get here?

Recognizing the fundamental impact of the violent formation of our nation is essential to understanding how we came to be in this space and time. For Burton-Harris this goes back to origins of slavery and the brutal murder of Black Africans for hundreds of years, where slave traders "violently shoved Black people into the bottom of ships and dropped over 2 million people overboard in the water like dead fish" on their passage to America for generations of servitude.

The remnants of slavery are still felt to this day and in 1967 came to a boiling point with the infamous 5-day 'Detroit Rebellion'. Fueled by extreme poverty, racism, police brutality and a lack of opportunity for Black residents, the 1967 Detroit Riots were a tipping point for the Detroit community and local residents like Hubbard. Hubbard noted similarities between the issues fueling the demand for change and equality that persist today including substandard housing, inadequate healthcare services and poor safe recreational options for Black Detroiters.

How has this history fueled the current crisis?

Although the phrase "justice for all" is taught in schools across our nation, history provides a much different roadmap to the reality of a country built upon providing justice for only a few. According to Burton-Harris our "criminal injustice system" results in citizens becoming "property of the state" and nation-wide economic effects that prevent Black citizens from benefiting from the economic labor their ancestors were forced into. The impact of this can be felt on micro, macro and mezzo levels molding everything from our individual implicit bias and clear-cut actions to broad-scale system decisions such as government spending allocations.

The anger is real, the fear, the frustration is real, but at the end of the day once we've cried, once we've screamed, once we processed our anger, we have to work together to move forward and every major movement in this country has happened when people have come together. - Saunteel Jenkins

What can we do now?

It is easy to say we want change, but how do we actually make it happen? For our panelists, there were a variety of tangible ways we can empower social change in our Detroit community:

  • Acknowledge your feelings and personal bias. Jenkins noted for this to be more than a temporary movement and become permanent change, we need to acknowledge our feelings. White privilege is real and living in denial of its existence and the macroaggressions occurring around us perpetuate a society founded in racism. Recognizing the opportunity to learn and teach the next generation is vital.
  • Have the difficult conversations you have been avoiding. Conversations on race and inequality can be a struggle, even for trained professionals. Jenkins noted this is the time for social workers to use what we have learned and connect with empathy. Start with open listening and give others the space to be who they are and feel what they are feeling. Then share your honest personal experiences of what it feels like for you. For Jenkins this includes the heart wrenching loss of her 14 year old brother to gun violence and having her husband randomly handcuffed on the side of I-94 in a business suit on his way home from a business trip.
  • Get out and vote. Going to the polls is a powerful way to make your voice heard and impact wide-scale decision making including the creation and elimination of laws and budget allocation. Less than half of Michigan voters take to the polls and that is a lot of votes to leave on the table. Local and national organizations, including the School's Coalition for Community Social Work (CCSW) student organization, assist with voting awareness, registration and transportation to the polls.
  • Hold people accountable. For Hubbard this involves not only the police on the ground, but the elected officials we put into office to represent us. Writing and calling congressman and legislative officials on issues such as Black unemployment, needed support of Black businesses and the fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and medications to the Black community can spur change that otherwise would be put on the back burner. According to Burton-Harris it is imperative that not just elected officials have a seat at the table, but also the people in the community they serve, "… because those closest to the problem are those closest to the solutions yet furthest from the resources for those solutions."
  • Get involved. For Burton-Harris this is more than taking to the streets; it must include individuals willing to broach community partnerships and organizational collaborations that result in system change. The School's Center for Behavioral Health and Justice displays this kind of collaboration connecting Michigan communities, organizations, behavioral health and law enforcement agencies to divert individuals from jails and prisons through innovative practices at every intercept of the criminal justice system.
  • Although those entering social work truly want to help people, we must also address how our 'help' may implicitly support systematic racism. I look forward to the discussions we need to keep having - which may be uncomfortable - to move us forward as a profession. - Sheryl Kubiak

    View a recording of the June 5, 2020 Community Action in the Times of Crisis: the Impact of racial Inequality in Detroit event on YouTube.

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