Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16235 Interest Divergence: How Social Work Undermined Brown v. Board of Education

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 10:30 AM
Independence D (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Damon W. Freeman, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Background and Purpose: Using Critical Race Theory, this study examines the history of how the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) undermined the implementation of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The social work profession has always prided itself on challenging injustice and pursuing social change. These principles comprise the core of the NASW's Code of Ethics (National Association of Social Workers, 2008). However, the profession's history in regards to racial justice is problematic at best (Lasch-Quinn, 1993). Surprisingly, social work historians have devoted little attention to how the profession reacted to Brown (Ehrenreich, 1985; Leiby, 1978; Leighninger, 1987; Reisch, 2001).

Methods: This study brings together historical analysis and critical race theory. The NASW Papers, the NASW Oral History Project, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Papers, the National Urban League Papers, and the Kenneth B. Clark Papers were examined as primary sources. Secondary sources include books, articles, and pamphlets published during the 1950s and 1960s from NASW. These materials were analyzed through a Critical Race Theory (CRT) perspective. CRT refers to a body of work that emerged during the 1980s among legal scholars to analyze why the most visible signs of racism have been outlawed but racial inequality persists in many areas. One of the central tenets of CRT, known as interest-convergence, holds that racial progress occurs for oppressed minority groups only when it benefits white political, psychic and/or economic interests.

Results: Archival research revealed that although NASW generally celebrated the Brown decision, it failed to support implementation of school desegregation through the use of financial means. In 1957, U.S. Congressperson Adam Clayton Powell attempted to attach guidelines to school construction legislation mandating that school districts must implement Brown to receive federal funds. NASW refused to back this effort because it would endanger the entire school financing bill even though very few all-black schools would receive funds. As a result, NASW settled for only moral appeals to desegregate. As it was known then to Powell, the NAACP, African American intellectuals such as Kenneth Clark and future policymakers and historians, most Southern schools only desegregated under threat of financial penalties. Using CRT, the study shows that the implementation of Brown was not in NASW's interest since it conflicted with the school financing issue. It concludes that NASW undermined Brown v. Board of Education and missed an opportunity to support school desegregation.

Conclusions and Implications: This study provides new information on the profession's history. Through the use of historical methods and CRT, it explains how and why NASW failed to wholeheartedly support school desegregation. The failure of NASW to support Powell delayed Brown's implementation and allowed time and space for opponents to resist the Supreme Court's decision. The study shows how social workers have periodically compromised their social justice values, working on behalf of oppressed groups, and pursuing social change for other priorities. It adds a profound component to analyses of race, public policy, and social work history.