Letter to the Editor: Unfinished Business

A Silver School alumnus discusses the recent racist tweet controversy while reflecting on his own experiences at NYU in the aftermath of MLK’s assassination.

Thomas B. Williams, NYU Class of 1969

Fifty-one years ago, in response to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, social work students at New York University, myself among them, called on the faculty to honor Dr. King and to respond to this unspeakable tragedy.

Classes and field work were suspended while we examined the role of the Silver School of Social Work, struck by the national disgrace of our nation’s racism and discrimination against African Americans and other minority groups. We demanded the school increase black and minority student recruitment, that they increase the diversity of the faculty and that they place students in internships that reflected actual community needs. Students fought to serve where they could make a difference, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant school system or a community mental health project, programs that were innovative and addressed contemporary issues.

Earlier this year, 51 years after King’s murder transformed our lives, a colleague and I were privileged to be invited by a new generation of social work students to speak at the school about student activism in the late ‘60s.

In the weeks since, I have been discouraged to learn of an incident that suggests our school remains mired in the same lack of consciousness that characterized race relations in my youth. The story began when an African American student asked to be patched into a class so that he would not miss the discussion.

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What I understand happened was that no one responded, so the student was unable to attend the class remotely. Subsequently, a fellow student wrote to him to explain why she had not responded to his request: “[…] I found it easier to lead the discussion without a black presence in the room since I do feel somewhat uncomfortable with the (perceived) threat it poses.”

The exchange went viral and was covered in a major newspaper; as students of color shared their own stories online, their experiences revealed a wound that has not healed. It caused my own memories to come flooding back.

In a 1968 statement delivered to the university, NYU Silver School of Social Work students called for “An annual observance of the death of MLK, co-sponsored by the faculty, student organizations, and the Association of Black Social Work Students, with the details for the program to be the responsibility of a planning committee representative of above mentioned groups.”  

We concluded with these words: “The real tribute to the memory of Martin Luther King is the eradication of all elements of racism in our school, University, and social agencies. To that end we have all dedicated ourselves.”

Reading through the recent Social Justice at Silver School of Social Work Student Recommendations from May 2018, I see they are strikingly similar to those we drafted in 1968-69.

I can’t say our efforts inspired change. I do know that witnessing the terrible toll of racism on our society changed me and my fellow students. I hope this, too, for young social workers in training: that it will make a difference that one student’s experience turned out to reflect that of all too many minority students at one of the most prestigious schools for social work in the United States.

Former President Barack Obama said in 2009 said that “you can’t necessarily bend history to your will, but you can do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it bends toward justice.”

As social workers, it is our job to heal the ills of the past and guarantee that all people can live in a society that guarantees life, liberty and justice to all.

An unkind message from a student who harbored a racist stereotype went viral at my alma mater because the job we began in 1968 is not done. I suspect minority students at other social work schools would say the same.

I urge us all, social work students, faculty and alumni, to help these institutions — and society in general — live up to the mission of the Silver School. In word, in deed and in thought we must be “committed to social and economic justice that includes freedom from all forms of oppression.”

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

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