SWHPN responds to McWhorter's NYT op-ed

We, the board members of the Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network (SWHPN) recently made a statement in response to the demographic data released by the Association of the Social Work Boards (ASWB). We noted our concern about the inevitable inherent racial bias embedded in the exam. Representing an organization of social workers working to bring humanity to serious illness and end-of-life care, we continue to reflect on ways to challenge the systems that deny and defy the basic humanity in all of us. It is in this endeavor that we respond to the recent New York Times opinion piece written by John McWhorter

In his opinion piece, Mr. McWhorter takes issue with the protest against the ASWB exam as racist. He points to the petition on Change.org and derides it for not sufficiently explaining why the tests are racist. Whether or not you believe the assertion that the test is racist depends on whether or not you believe the educational system in the United States, from preschool to graduate school, is embedded in a racist system and is infused with racist practices. There has been sufficient research data that support the fact that there are “categorical inequalities between Black and white students” in disciplinary policies, access to advanced courses, assignment to gifted and talented and special needs programs, and in practices of racialized tracking. The truth is that 68 years since the US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v Board of Education, high levels of racial and economic segregation persist in most metropolitan areas and with it, disparities in education. 

Mr. McWhorter interprets an assertion in the petition that “is suggesting that Black, Latino/Hispanic and Indigenous social workers, by virtue of their race, are less capable of passing standardized tests.” The suggestion is not that Black, Latinx and Indigenous social workers are less capable of passing standardized tests by virtue of personal intellectual failure, but instead through systemic dispossession of many of the factors that we know lead to academic success. The person-in-environment lens of social work implores us to look beyond the intrapersonal to the critical role of stable socioeconomic homes, schools, and neighborhoods with resources that foster psychosocial-cognitive development. Other social work theories, such as social learning theory, acknowledge the importance of nurturing communities and role models. Maslow’s hierarchy teaches us that the prerequisite needs of physiological, safety, and esteem needs must be met before cognitive needs can be fostered.

Mr. McWhorter protests that we who oppose the ASWB licensure tests do not “prove the exam’s design is fatally flawed and do[es]n’t show which test components are out of bounds .” He argues that the real issue is “Black and Latino test-takers disproportionately have trouble with standardized tests” and then proposes an explanation based on the idea that for working-class Black communities, language was used primarily for tasks in the here and now as opposed to a tool for “retaining and discussing facts for their own sake,” a common practice in the “middle-class subculture.”   In this, rather than proposing a dismantling of the standardized test Mr. McWhorter simply makes the optimistic claim that the racial lag in pass rates for the ASWB exam will resolve with time, as evidenced by the number of Black and Brown test-takers who pass on successive attempts.

We propose that a more proactive approach is to dismantle this standardized test that may be flawed not only in its format but also in its determination of legitimate professional knowledge.

This simplified understanding of the issues and its solutions expounded by Mr. McWhorter and his allies fails on several levels to understand the point. Social work is a value-based profession. One of our primary ethos and principles is that of social justice. We challenge systems that disempower and advocate for the full enfranchisement of all people, regardless of their social location. The point is that fairness and equity are different things. Fairness is the metric of one set of standards by which everyone is judged equally. Equity is a comprehensive view of all of the factors that create a lived experience of a person and to acknowledge the inherent disparities in a racialized society, to accommodate for these disparities, and to repair and reset. 

Mr. McWhorter claims that the ASWB exam is not an obstacle to Black participation in the social work profession because Black social workers are overrepresented in comparison to the proportion of Black Americans in the population. Again, he misses the point. Social workers of color are vastly underrepresented in a profession consisting of mostly white women in a country whose population is becoming more diverse. The cost of this absence of a shared collegial community where one can be fully authentic to one’s identity and experience is no less than their sustainability in our profession. In noting that pass rates increase with successive testing, Mr. McWhorter seems to be advocating that Black and Latinx people continue to retake the exam until they pass. He is also advocating repeated payments of $230 for the privilege of sitting for an exam in an economic reality of huge student debt in a country where nearly 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, and whose employment depends on obtaining licensure through the ASWB exam. 

It will be hard, as Mr. McWhorter states, to prove that any one question or set of questions is racially biased. It will be hard to develop a standardized exam that meets the unique abilities and disabilities of all test takers. And it will be hard to formulate and create an innovative method to assess proficiency in a field that is primarily based on self-awareness and critical reflection. No multiple-choice exam can ferret out who will be able to provide deep empathy and a healing presence to our suffering clients. Our efforts to claim legitimacy through academically-acknowledged standards come at the cost of the humanity of our profession and the soul of our passion as a helping profession.

Mr. McWhorter's solution to essentially give it time, that Black and Latino social workers will get there, is disingenuous, dangerous, and aggressively disrespectful to communities of color. It asks that prospective social workers, the clients in need, and communities where they live as real people with real lives of both challenges and dreams, just wait; that equity will eventually catch up to balance inequities of the past and present.  When in history has this approach ever served anyone except those with privilege and power?


-The Board of the Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network

Liz Anderson, DSW, LCSW 

Cathy Berkman, PhD, MSW

Tanisha Bowman, MSW, LSW, APHSW-C, CGP, NEDA Proficient (Treasurer)

Lori Eckel, LCSW, APHSW-C

Jennifer J. Halpern, PhD, LMSW, APHSW-C

Danielle Jonas, MSW, LCSW (Vice-Chair)

Anne Kelemen, LICSW, APHSW-C  (Chair)

Russell Kieffer, LCSW, APHSW-C

Eunju Lee, LCSW, APHSW-C

Chris Onderdonk, MSW, LCSW, APHSW-C

Arika Patneaude, MHP, EMMHS, MSW, LICSW, APHSW-C

Stacy S. Remke, MSW, LICSW, APHSW-C  (Immediate Past Chair)

Caitlin Scanlon, MSW, LCSW (Secretary)

Danetta H. Sloan, PhD, MSW, MA, LMSW

Bridget Sumser, LCSW, MSW

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Kennan Moore - Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Grateful to the Board for this statement. This is an opportunity for social workers to dig deep and challenge systemic racism in our own field and subsequent contributions to the perpetuation of white supremacy. If not us, who? Kennan Moore, LCSW Denver, CO

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