This special issue of Social Work, in many ways, offers an opportunity to reflect on the role of the profession in addressing issues of social justice and civil and human rights. It catapults from Social Work’s 1982 Special Issue on Oppression Based on Color, edited by Dr. June Gary, in which matters of social injustice, systemic discrimination, and the language of oppression were applied to “minorities” and examined by a diverse group of scholars (Hopps, 1982). This topic was reexamined by Schiele and Hopps (2009) in Social Work’s Special Issue on Racial Minorities Then and Now: The Continuing Significance of Race. In this current special issue of Social Work, the authors build on the work of Hopps (1982) and Schiele and Hopps (2009) and argue that the current scholarship is guided by the notion that “the profession, since its inception, seems to be challenged by a ‘push-pull’ or ambivalence vis-a-vis power and powerlessness, wealth and inequality, and social control and benevolence” (Bowles & Hopps, 2014, p. 4). Therefore, this 2016 special issue of Social Work explores the continued need for social work's presence in clarifying and advancing the intersectionality of social justice and civil and human rights.

Civil rights include personal liberty; the rights of citizens to political, legal, and social equality; and fundamental protections of human rights (Bent-Goodley, 2014; Pollard, 2008; Valdez, 2015). Social justice is a foundational term and is extensively used throughout the profession. As such, it would seem that a working definition and consensus statement would have been articulated given the prominence attached to the term (Galambos, 2008; Rountree & Pomeroy, 2010). The term is even a central theme in some school of social work mission statements. Holosko, Winkel, Crandall, and Briggs (2015) conducted a study of the top 50 schools of social work and found that the term “social justice” was used in 33 of the 50 mission statements reviewed.

Arguably, Rawls's (1971) treatise on the subject is probably one of the most widely used in the profession. His position focuses on the principle of fairness centered around guarding equal protection to liberties, rights, and opportunities: being aware that inequalities not only exist, but are acceptable if all have an equal chance of experiencing the conditions that comprise inequality; and that inequalities must redound to the benefit of those with the greatest disadvantage. Other philosophies that help undergird the term include utilitarian, libertarian, communitarian, egalitarian, and distributive perspectives and values (Galambos, 2008). These orientations grow out of political rights; the U.S. Constitution; and the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights. Political and civil rights have overshadowed concerns about social components of citizenship or social rights, such as the right to education, economic security, employment, and health (Wilson, 1995). In the sixth edition of the Social Work Dictionary, Barker (2014) defined social justice as “an ideal condition in which all members of society have the same basic rights, protection, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits” (p. 398). Social justice encompasses the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society (Bent-Goodley, 2008). The richness of these contributing ideas, particularly around redistribution, also add some lack of consensus and perhaps polarization—in the profession and in society.

As mentioned earlier, schools of social work have identified the term “social justice” in their mission statements and even as a center piece in some cases. In the Holosko et al. (2015) study, “social justice” was used interchangeably with nine other terms such as “social work justice,” “social advocacy,” “social and economic justice,” “distributive justice,” and “redistributive justice.” Although definitions varied across ideological domains and were imprecise, the term was embedded in 66 percent of the schools’ mission statements. Principles and concepts of social justice break down in the dynamics of application, situated as they are in the often tense and competitive geopolitical environments. Since preference is implied to enhance equality, what guiding assumptions might be used for desired ends? Hopps's 1982 editorial, noted earlier, prescribed a path that determines those most in need, referencing Daniel Maguire (1980):

  • No alternatives to enforced preferences are available.

  • Prejudice against the group [has reached] the level of depersonalization.

  • Bias against the group is not private or narrowly localized but is rather entrenched in the culture and distributive systems of the society.

  • The members of the victim group [are] visible as such and thus lack an avenue of escape from their disempowered status. (pp. 129–130)

Maguire cited black Americans, women, Native Americans, and Latinos as the groups that meet all these criteria. He argued that

social and distributive justice must respond to the needs of all the poor. However, we are dealing here with the special needs of discrete groups that call for further relief beyond the usual ministrations of just government, social agencies, and just people. (p. 129)

Thus, it is essential to examine the additional burden of the intersectionality of race, gender, and class. Given this caveat, this view is manifested when black, Latino, Asian, and First Nations women must compete with white women for positions of leadership, when the latter have dual claims to power and privilege, because they are white and female (Banks, Hopps, & Briggs, in press). What this means is that some of the nation's privileged citizens can and do claim protected status. Although Maguire was directional for 20th century thought and praxis going forward, social work has to articulate a working definition of social justice that comprehensively addresses this paradox. Such a comprehensive definition of social justice bases it within a three-prong framework, tied to political and social rights, which serves as a base for expanding work and developing an organizing pyramid for praxis. In this way the application of social justice is best understood as a core value and a set of skill competencies that are integrated throughout policy and service domains. The definition will need to give thought to the gravity and rotation effects that accompany the intractable multivariate influences of race, gender, class, and vulnerability. In this vein, vulnerability is not a proxy for the aforementioned factors and embodies its own powerful influence. Preference then is not only multifaceted but best understood through the lens of a prism.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has established the importance of advancing issues of social justice and equality as part of the education of professional social workers. It is stated in the NASW (2015),Code of Ethics that social workers should challenge social injustice; pursue social change to change forms of social injustice; promote sensitivity to and knowledge about diversity; and ensure access to resources, equality of opportunity, and meaningful participation in decision making for all people. The Council on Social Work Education (2015) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master's Social Work Programs are also instructive for faculty designing and implementing social justice content in the curricula.

Importance of Social Justice and Civil and Human Rights Today

Social workers have the conceptual idea and raw materials for a blueprint for the pursuit of social justice as it intersects with civil and human rights. Over the profession's history, social workers have promoted some ideas and forms of furthering civil rights and social justice (Bowles & Hopps, 2014; Bowles, Hopps, & Clayton, 2016; Clayton & Hopps, 2013). People like Dorothy Height, women's rights activist and president of the National Council of Negro Women (from 1957 to 1996), and Whitney Young, civil rights activist and head of the National Urban League (from 1961 to 1971), provide examples of how social workers can be stewards of change. Both Height and Young were professionally and personally invested in creating equity, changing systems, and promoting diversity.

In many ways, today's topics are a clear reminder that the journey is not yet finished. It is important, however, to acknowledge and recognize the progress the profession has made and to also clearly articulate that there is still more work to be done to achieve social justice and equality. We are infiltrated with reminders of the importance of these imperatives for our profession. Many immigrants in our nation are faced with prejudice and discrimination. Simultaneously, the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 1965 to provide protections and remove race-based barriers to voting (Coleman, 2014), has not been reauthorized, which has created space for voter discrimination and disenfranchisement (Hopps & Bowles, 2015). The mass incarceration of African Americans and the subsequent withdrawal of voting as a result of felony convictions has led to the disenfranchisement of over 6 million Americans, despite their having served their sentence (Sentencing Project, 2016). There have been mass protests due to issues of police bias, discrimination, and the killing of African Americans and police officers around the nation. Muslim families and communities are experiencing prejudice and discriminatory treatment because of their religion (Hodge, Zidan, & Husain, 2016). Although strides have been made in legal support of same-sex marriage, there are still policies that do not acknowledge the rights of the transgender community and there is still differential treatment because of their gender identification and sexual orientation (Alford & Lee, 2016). Hence, although there have been tremendous strides with respect to civil rights and social justice, much remains to be done and many contradictions persist regarding what is just and civil in a society of a democratic republic of ordered law (Rawls, 1971).

In This Special Issue

Several articles are being presented in an effort to enhance the profession's repertoire on social justice and civil rights. These articles are organized around the three prongs of social justice intersecting with civil rights: (1) social justice as a core value, (2) social justice as a set of skills/competencies, and (3) applications of the first two prongs throughout the broadly defined service delivery domains. Singularly and collectively, they helped move the profession forward.

In viewing social justice as a core value, Steen Mann, Restivo, Mazany, and Chapple encourage readers to better understand the meaning of human rights and how it can be executed in different field settings. Burnette and Figley examine the important role that historical oppression plays, particularly in the role of indigenous peoples, and the need for social workers to connect historical and contemporary forms of oppression. St. Vil Sabri, Nwokolo, Alexander, and Campbell examine intimate partner violence as a civil rights and social justice issue for black women, encouraging social workers to be better informed on working with survivors. In viewing social justice as a set of skills and competencies, Keenan Limone, and Sandoval examine how social workers view their roles as agents of social justice and human well-being. Eversman and Bird challenge readers to become more astute at understanding how current discourse shapes understandings of social justice issues, and how social workers can improve their critique of such dilemmas. Jeyapal encourages social workers to become more involved in shaping, responding to, and leading revolutionary social movements in the pursuit of justice. McCarter explores the school-to-prison pipeline and encourages school social workers to become more involved in the civil rights and social justice of young people. Each article provides implications for practice.

A Final Thought

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was recognized as a social work pioneer by NASW in October 2016. This honor was both significant and symbolic because the profession finally brought recognition to a woman who embodied social justice and who advanced civil rights (Bent-Goodley, 2001; Peebles-Wilkins & Francis, 1990). Wells-Barnett embodied the principles that should define social work: commitment to change, the ability to ask the hard questions, and a willingness to work toward making the world a different and better place. It seems odd that we have only come to recognize her in 2016, considering her enormous influence and the major contributions she made to social work. Wells-Barnett challenged those committed to social justice to create a more just and civil society, and encouraged activists to never be caught unready to advance civil rights and social change. Thus, let social workers be encouraged to adopt the following mantra:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and it does seem to me that notwithstanding all these social agencies and activities there is not that vigilance which should be exercised in the preservation of our rights. This leads me to wonder if we are not well satisfied to be able to point to our wonderful institutions with complacence and draw the salaries connected therewith, instead of being alert as the watchman on the wall (Duster, 1970, p. 415).

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