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'George Floyd's murder was the catalyst for my focus on anti-racist social work'

Wayne Reid tells PSW of the motivation behind him becoming BASW's first anti-racism lead officer...

Professional Social Work magazine, 9 February, 2021

Wayne Reid didn’t set out to be a spokesperson for anti-racism in social work, nor does he see himself as such. But after the brutal killing of black American George Floyd he felt he had to speak out, writes Shahid Naqvi.

That horrific video footage of a white police officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck resulting in his death sent shockwaves around the world.

For Wayne, a professional officer with BASW England, it evoked many emotions. “I went through a period of feeling quite angry about it. But rather than sitting on my anger I felt motivated to throw myself into my work and more particular anti-racism in social work.

“I wrote articles for Community Care. I was given lots of opportunities to speak at events around anti-racism. That was my way of dealing with the issues Floyd’s death brought up for me.

“It was probably therapeutic on some level. If I didn’t do that it probably would have affected me more.

“I realised my position at BASW gave me a platform to champion anti-racism – it was the personal leaking into the professional in some ways.”

Floyd’s death was a wake-up call that galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement. It was seen as emblematic of a far more widespread experience of racism acutely felt by black and ethnic minority people both across the Atlantic and in the UK and beyond. It tore the scab off an already festering wound.

“George wasn’t the first black guy to be killed brutally by the police. He was just the first to be killed brutally by the police and the footage shared widely on social media,” says Wayne. “It’s a sad state of affairs it took video evidence to confirm something that has been happening for decades or even centuries if you trace it back.

“In the US, the police service was really designed to oppress black people. After the abolition of slavery its primary objective evolved into being the overseer of black people.

“I don’t feel we are far removed from that ideology if you look at things like stop and search in this country.”

Wayne makes some strong assertions. Such as: “Every single person of colour, I am confident, will have experienced some form of racism in their lives. There are so many variations in it. Although some people might not recognise it as racism, depending on their level of understanding.”

He also believes things have got significantly worse rather than better in the UK.

“The last five years since Brexit has just normalised racist language and ideologies in this country. It began about ten years ago, at the start of austerity, where an attitude of people looking after themselves because they were in survival mode, swept the country.

“Austerity impacted on people socio-economically and socio-politically. Now we are in a situation that is unrecognisable to the 1990s and early 2000s in terms of valuing cultural diversity.”

The multiculturalism of those decades has been replaced by a mainstreaming of racist attitudes in some quarters, believes Wayne. It can be seen in the racial abuse suffered on social media by high-profile black people including Lewis Hamilton, Marcus Rashford and John Boyega. It was also witnessed on the football terraces with Millwall fans jeering at footballers taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter.

Most uncomfortable of all is Wayne’s assertion that it exists in social work, a profession that prioritises challenging discrimination, oppression and social injustice.

“Most people will think social work couldn’t possibly be racist,” says Wayne. “Look at the value base. Look at the history and the work we are trying to do. But with that has come a degree of complacency. There are a lot of social workers from black and ethnic minority backgrounds who have contacted me to express their lived experience of racism in social work.

“Some of their stories centre around the lack of opportunities compared to their white colleagues around promotion, the handling of racist incidents and racial bullying. However, the bottom line is, in many social work settings racism is just not taken seriously and anti-racism is not prioritised.”

Wayne believes organisations that say they don’t have an issue with racism are in denial.

“The reality is all organisations, institutions and structures are influenced by white superiority. It is just a question of how much, not whether it exists.

“Some workplaces are overtly racist towards their staff of colour. Others less so. There is a spectrum.

“In social work there maybe workplace practices and accepted norms which are racist. It can be easily normalised in particular environments and some workplaces can be quite insular, so it flourishes and continues.

“People who don’t think they are racist outside work, might go into work and comply with these norms.”

Examples of racism in action within social work, says Wayne, include the disproportionately high number of black and ethnic minority people appearing at fitness to practice hearings, something recently recognised by England’s regulator, Social Work England.

He also cites anecdotal evidence from the Social Workers Union that black and ethnic minority newly qualified social workers in England are more likely to fail their ASYE (Assessed and Supported Year in Employment), adding: “It is being used as a discriminatory tool.”

Combating racism has to happen at the institutional as well as the individual level, says Wayne.

“Let’s focus on the structures and institutions because that is where the real power is. The policies and procedures.

“It isn’t just about making individuals or groups feel they are being accused of racism.

“The starting point I come from is if we can promote anti-racism at least that means we are acknowledging racism exists and we are doing something to counter it, not just sitting on our hands paralysed by the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. It is important organisations and individuals take responsibility.”

In this endeavour, Wayne places accountability firmly at the door of those leading the profession to provide more than just “lip service”.

“I think every social work organisation can do something within their control to make social work more anti-racist. BASW has done a lot and has led the way.

“Social Work England could do more from a regulatory point of view in the education, training and professional standards to promote anti-racism, anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice.

“The departments for education and health and social care, together with the Local Government Association and other stakeholders, could roll out an anti-racist, anti-discriminatory mandate so all employers work in a consistent and ethical way.

“There are things Ofsted could do when they undertake inspections – they could have more indicators of how well the workforce and staff are supported and protected around issues of discrimination, oppression and racism.”

Earlier this year, new workforce race equality standard pilots were announced at 18 local authorities in England aimed at tackling racism within social care. While welcoming the move, Wayne questioned how enforceable they would be if not mandatory. He also asks why similar standards are not being launched within children's services. 

One thing Wayne is clear on: the time for cloaking such issues in the language of equality, diversity and inclusion is over. Black Lives Matter has put the language of anti-racism and anti-racist practice centre stage again.