In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race and Racism

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Aging
  • Islamophobia
  • Child Maltreatment
  • Crime and Justice
  • Health
  • Mental Health
  • Substance Abuse
  • Social Work Organizations against Racism

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Social Work Race and Racism
Haluk Soydan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0058


In many societies the social work profession operates in a racialized social and psychological environment. Racism is an important factor that has been associated with a range of negative outcomes, including unemployment, stigmatization, substance abuse, and limited access to education. Furthermore, because members of a “racial group” tend to develop collectively shared value systems, behavioral patterns, and lifestyles, they stand out as a group with specific characteristics relating to sex roles, peer relationships, marriage, childbearing, nutrition, physiological changes, and dealing with social, psychological, health, and mental health problems. Thus, social workers have to work in an environment affected by complex factors associated with race as a social construct. Historically, the idea of different races is based on the assumption that there are distinct genetic differences between groups of human beings. However, it is not meaningful to categorize individuals in race groups on the basis of biological and genetic characteristics. Racial categories are constructed by a group itself or others for the purpose of defining social boundaries and the domination of one (racial) group over other (racial) groups, resulting in racism. Typically, social work literature is dedicated to exploring whether racial groups have specific needs and how these needs can be met by the social care services. In the literature and colloquial language, “race” is closely positioned to “ethnicity,” and “ethnicity” is closely positioned to “culture.” Therefore it is recommended that one view all three concept areas for a better understanding of how these concepts relate to each other.

Introductory Works

The literature on race and social work is relatively scattered in terms of concepts and definitions. These introductory works are selected because they give an accessible overview of the literature. Logan 2005, an annotated bibliography, provides a good introduction to this rather scattered literature and resources. Any introduction to race and social work implies a good understanding of race and racism in general; for the purpose of this article, Smedley and Smedley 2005 offers a brief but excellent introduction. Furthermore, Dominelli, et al. 2001 offers race and ethnicity and social work perspectives that stretch beyond the frames of traditional literature, as does Aulette 2017. Constantine and Wing Sue 2006 is complementary by its direct relevance to professional practice. Braun, et al. 2007; Helms, et al. 2005; and Sternberg, et al. 2005 elaborate on current race-related issues raised by modern empirical studies.

  • Aulette, Judy Root. 2017. A global view of race and racism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book scrutinizes dynamics of racism in multiple countries around world. It explores related issues such apartheid, genocide, colonialism, migration, assimilation, affirmative action, etc. This is a good reading for a quick review of how racism works and is opposed in multiple countries.

  • Braun, Lundy, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Duana Fullwiley, et al. 2007. Racial categories in medical practice: How useful are they? PLoS Medicine 4.9: e217.

    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0040287

    Focuses on utilization of racial categories in medical practice but can easily be used to raise the professional standards of social workers as well. Referring to historical evidence and modern genetic research, it shows that “racial profiling” in medical practice can lead to serious medical errors.

  • Constantine, Madonna G., and Derald Wing Sue, eds. 2006. Addressing racism: Facilitating cultural competence in mental health and educational settings. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Takes a genuine race perspective and draws on the experiences of peoples of color in the United States. Besides education, its focus is on racial deficits of mental health and related services. The book also provides a useful antiracism strategy in mental health.

  • Dominelli, Lena, Walter Lorenz, and Haluk Soydan, eds. 2001. Beyond racial divides: Ethnicities in social work practice. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    This collection of articles builds on the dynamic nature of race in a globalizing world, provides an overview of race frameworks from around the world, and discusses how a different race and ethnicity framework may influence the contents and direction of social work practice. The case studies come from Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia.

  • Helms, Janet E., Maryam Jernigan, and Jackquelyn Mascher. 2005. The meaning of race in psychology and how to change it. American Psychologist 60.1: 27–36.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.1.27

    This is a sophisticated work written primarily for psychologists but is pertinent to the social work profession and other professionals who work in social and mental health services, because in many instances psychologists and social workers address the same or similar problems.

  • Logan, Sadye L. M., comp. 2005. Social work with people of African descent: A bibliography with annotations. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

    This bibliography has more than five hundred references to different types of resources, such as books, Internet resources, and videos. It is a useful resource that covers many aspects of social work practice with people of African descent.

  • Smedley, Audrey, and Brian D. Smedley. 2005. Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives in the social construction of race. American Psychologist 60.1: 12–26.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.1.16

    This article provides an introduction to the origins of the concept of race and describes how race is associated with undertreatment or maltreatment of racial minority clients in health, mental health, and social care services. This article is a good introduction easily accessible to undergraduate students.

  • Sternberg, Robert J., Elena L. Grigorenko, and Kenneth K. Kidd. 2005. Intelligence, race, and genetics. American Psychologist 60.1: 46–59.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.1.46

    Social workers are at times exposed to information suggesting that racially and ethnically constructed groups, such as recent immigrants, underperform because of their race. This Yale-based research group demonstrates that currently there is no evidence on genetic links between race and intelligence, and that it is meaningless to use race in explaining behavioral patterns and performance.

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