Abstract: Differential Racialization of Substances and the Social Work Profession: The Gilded Age to Contemporary Times (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Differential Racialization of Substances and the Social Work Profession: The Gilded Age to Contemporary Times

Saturday, January 15, 2022
Liberty Ballroom N, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kristina Monti, PhD, Director of Special Projects, Mount Sinai Morningside/West, New York, NY
Sara Terrana, PhD, Assistant Professor, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY

Beginning in the Gilded Age, social policies towards substance users have been racialized to fit the needs of mainstream “white” society. The purpose of this paper is to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the intersection between the values of the social work profession and the differential racialization of substances in the US beginning in the 1870s to contemporary times. The study objectives, based in the theoretical framework of Critical Race Theory (CRT), specifically the tenet of differential racialization, examines overarching drug policies, and how the core values of the social work profession has transected with them throughout time.


This historical research design relies on secondary sources to verify and synthesize evidence regarding differential racialization of drug policies and its relation to the social work profession. Differential racialization, a core tenet of CRT, is operationalized as society’s ability to favor or negatively racialize minority groups based upon societal needs at the time. The sampling methods include a historical review of sequential eras, beginning with published documents and policies (e.g., Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) of the Gilded Age, through the Progressive Era, the Great Depression and New Deal eras, followed by WWII, the Great Society (inclusive of the Civil Rights era), the Conservative Response of New Federalism and Neoliberalism, through current times. For each era, differential racialization is utilized in the analysis of drug policies and their impact on specific racial and ethnic groups along with the role of the social work profession in either substantiating the discriminatory policies or advocating against them.

Conclusions and Implications

Society and the social work profession are arguably more progressive at this time as compared to prior eras, however, differential racialization of drug policies continue to exist that require swift and ethical management. Of these issues are the legalization of marijuana in numerous states; the continued discrimination experienced by BIPOC populations in the form of "stop and frisk," policies; and the drug testing of welfare recipients that occurs in various states. Also of concern is the rising rate of drug-related overdoses among BIPOC populations since the COVID-19 pandemic, for which this population was already disproportionately affected by. As this trend analysis details, the social work profession must get ahead of the potential moral panics or drug scares that occur in order to establish itself and be heard in addressing these issues on the forefront versus being reactionary and discriminatory. If our profession can learn from our past, and due to society's needs including the political climate, drug policies that continually differentially racialize minority populations must be at the forefront of our advocacy efforts. It is important for social work to not only address this issue head on but to continue the embracement of CRT and its application to social issues and areas of practice.