As Social Workers, What Is the Justice We Seek?

2021 began with news that the police officers involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake would not be charged with any crime. This followed news from earlier this fall in which a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky declined to file charges against the officers who were responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor.

Last year, we witnessed the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sean Reed, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Walter Wallace, Jr., Casey Goodson, Andre Hill, Bennie Edwards and others — each at the hands of the police. These names were added to the continuing list of names of Black Americans who have suffered violent deaths at the hands of law enforcement. Across these deaths, a common factor has been the lack of accountability for the officers responsible for these deaths.

As we begin 2021, we have just witnessed an assault on the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob of insurrectionists like we’ve never seen. As a nation, we watched in disbelief as rioters invaded the Capitol with the intent of overturning the results of a presidential election and causing harm to those who stood against this. Layered on top of this was the painful recognition that the minimal response to these rioters by the Capitol Police stood in sharp contrast to the police response that many peaceful protestors faced this past summer following the murder of George Floyd. As rioters entered the Capitol unchecked causing mayhem and even death, it served as a stark example of the injustice long decried yet ever present in our society. The muted response was notable in its lack of force, offering a stunning contrast to other examples of excessive, often deadly force during police interactions over offenses as benign as selling loose cigarettes.

The injustice we see serves as a continual reminder of the deep problems of racism and White supremacy that plague our country. As social workers, we must continue to stand strongly and firmly against the injustice we see and call out racism and White supremacy wherever they exist. Yet as social workers, we must also remember that the injustice we see is not evidence of a problem. It is evidence that our system of policing is working exactly as it was intended. Since the beginnings of slavery, our system of policing was designed to systematically oppress Black Americans through surveillance, regulation, and incarceration, and that continues through today. Confronting this history is key to addressing the injustice we see.

Yet as we are surrounded by injustice, I continue to think about the meaning of justice. As the voices demanding justice continue to be heard, both in the wake of last week’s riots and in response to the epidemic of police violence, it is worth examining — what is the justice we seek? Demanding the arrests and incarceration of the officers responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake may seem like justice. But it is not. Justice for Breonna Taylor is a living, breathing Breonna Taylor. Justice for Jacob Blake is a healthy, walking Jacob Blake. In the absence of this, can we imagine justice that prioritizes accountability? Justice that does not center punishment and incarceration as the only means to achieve it? Boldly reimagining our concept of justice reaffirms the need for liberation from the systems that fail to deliver justice time and again.

Can we imagine accountability in ways that bring about healing? Can we imagine consequences in ways that don’t resort to locking people in cages? These are questions to grapple with as we interrogate our society’s continued reliance on the carceral state to seek justice which only perpetuates the tremendous harm these systems exact on our communities.

As we move forward into a new year we are about to embark on a new era. An era full of possibilities, yet one that is also plagued by what has existed for centuries. As we look forward to the future with hope, it is important to remember that the pervasive racism and White supremacy we have borne witness to will not be vanquished easily.

Our work will not be done until we are free of injustice and oppression. And our work will not be done until we are free of the systems that perpetuate and maintain injustice and oppression. As social workers, we must be clear in our goal, and that goal is liberation. There is much to be done and much to achieve until our goal is realized.

Alan J. Dettlaff is Dean and Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair, Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston

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