Prof. Ruha Benjamin Calls on Class of 2020 to Become “Champions of the Social Contract”

May 21 @ 9:34 pm

The following is the text of the graduation keynote delivered by Professor Ruha Benjamin at a virtual commencement held by Columbia University’s School of Social Work for its 2020 graduates, on Wednesday, May 20.

Columbia School of Social Work Class of 2020! Congratulations to each and every one of you, your family, friends, your entire squad. I’m honored to celebrate this moment with you in part because of how vital the profession of social work has always been, but especially now.

And I’m not just referring to your day-to-day work, the glue holding our fractured society together. But, more fundamentally, because you’re entering the field when the very idea of “the social” is routinely undermined and attacked; when the basic idea that not only should a diverse populace co-exist, but that each person should have what they need to exist in the first place, is somehow controversial.

As I was thinking about what to share with you today, I flashbacked to this moment in the documentary The Great Hack, which you should all definitely watch. There’s this moment when the narrator is explaining the goal of those using fake news to manipulate the electorate during the 2016 election and Brexit vote on both sides of the Atlantic. The aim of these disinformation architects was—is—to break society. According to Steve Bannon, for example, “It is only when you break it, that you can remodel the pieces into your vision of a new society.”

Of course, their “new” vision is nothing new—just more white supremacy, more class warfare, more patriarchy, more imperialism. And to get more, they need to break (or, continue to break) the social contract, by deepening divisions and amplifying hierarchies using what might be better called anti-social media.

The point being, there are powerful people and organizations working overtime to undermine the very premise of “society.”

What, then, does it mean to be a social worker in a context when there’s a deliberate campaign to break the social?

For starters, I think it means thinking about your profession beyond a specific set of skills or credentials. I think it entails a keen understanding that many of the policies and structures that govern our lives are working against the social, pushing a corrosive individualism cloaked in the language of “freedom.” This was true before the pandemic and has only intensified since.

Social work can and should challenge the corrosive individualism that infects every area of lives. Social work can and should work against the revolting distortion of “freedom-talk,” which is really just the freedom to go to work without sick leave, the freedom to nurse the ailing without protective gear, the freedom to grow the nation’s food with the looming threat of ICE raids, the freedom to be warehoused in prisons with no way to socially distance, the freedom to be stranded in nursing homes with no way to avoid contagion, the freedom not to care as the most vulnerable die off.

The aim of this strain of freedom, a freedom from mutual obligation, is to break society, to erode mutuality, to grind down our ability to care for one another, to eat away at any notion of a collective good, and to destroy the institutions upon which our society depends. In this context, social workers are not only on the frontlines of a global pandemic. But at a much more fundamental level, you are called upon to be champions of the social contract itself.

The fact is, ours has never stopped being a eugenically-structured society, designed for the fittest to flourish and the vulnerable to die off. Whereas in a past era, social workers have aided and abetted eugenic policies of classification, sterilization, and institutionalization, now you have an obligation to reject the practices and policies that continue to perpetuate a survival-of-the-fittest, eugenic society.

This destructive ideology was alive and kicking well before the pandemic, and it’s been revived now, to re-consolidate power and privilege in the wake of this crisis. So why can’t we seem to bury it once and for all?

It’s tempting to tell a story going back just a few months or few years, in which our federal government made a series of monstrous decisions, from firing the entire Pandemic Response team in 2018 to the administration’s slow and ineffective adoption of public health measures up to the present.

But, of course, the story goes back hundreds of years, in which our deeply stratified social order is rooted in genocide and slavery. The Indigenous People’s Movement and Lakota People’s Law Project reminded us as much in a virtual town hall titled, “From Smallpox to Covid-19, Let’s Heal One Another,” which drew attention to this longer genocidal history of infectious disease, but also to the life-affirming cultural traditions which we can and must build on.

This long view also reminds us that one of the deeply distorting features of our society is that human beings were treated, in law and custom, as things. That our enslaved ancestors were not simply exploited to enrich the slavocracy, but that they were the riches! Human beings bought, sold, transformed into capital assets, that they were insured, and used as collateral, underwriting white credit.

The entire financial foundation of our society was built on the extraction of value from Black labor and Indigenous land. We can’t bury this past, in other words, because White accumulation and racial dispossession produced this nation.

Given this context, the phrase “essential worker” takes on added meaning when it comes to how we treat labor in this nation: who, after all, were the first essential workers? Essential to exploit, essential to sacrifice, essential to coerce, essential to gaslight, essential to romanticize, essential to resist, essential to organize, essential to protect, essential to pay, essential to care.

We can’t simply bury this history, because racism is productive. Not in the sense of being “good,” but in the literal capacity of racism to produce things of value to some, even as it wreaks havoc on others. We’re still taught to think of racism as an aberration, a glitch, an accident, an isolated incident, a bad apple, in the backwoods, and outdated, rather than as innovative, systemic, diffuse, an attached incident, the entire orchard, in the ivory tower, forward looking, even viral.

In sociology, we like to say, “race is socially constructed,” but we often fail to state the corollary, that racism constructs. In the context of the pandemic, we know who racism is harming, but who is it benefiting? What is it producing? If we only look at the underside, we miss seeing who racism is enriching, whose lives it is extending.

The combined effects of racism and capitalism intersect and infect every aspect of the pandemic. Who has access to personal protective equipment, who is treated with care and dignity when they go to the hospital, which businesses are receiving bailout, which students are able to transition to remote learning, who police are arresting for social distancing violations.

For those of us sheltering in place, who’s growing and packaging our food, who’s delivering our mail, who’s working in nursing homes, who’s disinfecting public space while the rest of us sleep, who’s keeping public transportation running, who’s picking up the garbage, who in other words is holding society together? Essential but devalued.

As the poet M. NourbeSe Philip put it, “If we were truly in this together, we would not be in this together.”

This reality, however, isn’t inevitable, rather the outcome of choices that people and institutions make to invest in some things, but not others. But together we can and must insist on radically different investments as part of what it means to do social work.

I should say, too, that one of the many ways cycles of dispossession persist is that a growing number of people are willing to acknowledge race but not racism. In so doing, they’ll talk about racial differences of all sorts, but then distort the reason for those differences, by pointing to the poor behavior of individuals or the poor values of different “cultures.”

At a recent press conference, for example, the U.S. Surgeon General singled out Blacks and Latinos to urge “no drinking or smoking” as a preventative measure during the pandemic, which plays into a long history of government officials invoking the supposedly bad behavior of racialized groups as the reason for their hardship. We see it with the very different responses to Black and White drug use, for example. One is a public health emergency, the other a crime.

This, as we know, is textbook distortion, pulled from the “culture of poverty” playbook, which lets the bad behavior of powerful institutions off the hook. And this distorting lens is not just a top-down phenomenon. It permeates everyday understandings of racial disparities. Teachers use it, employers use it, police use it, sadly social workers use it, even doctors and nurses use it.

For example, a friend of mine, Professor Khiara Bridges, was recently on the radio talking about the racial dimensions of the pandemic, and a nurse who had listened to the interview, emailed Professor Bridges to say: “I believe you have some huge blind spots. I am white, 64, a registered nurse who has worked in critical care for 40 years. I dated a black man from Louisiana. I am experienced at being a bedside nurse and interfacing with blacks in intimate situations. I may have insight that you do not. I take issue with your comment about perhaps blacks not getting good health care prior to admission to ICU. You made no mention of whether these patients took responsibility for THEIR OWN HEALTH… I believe that black CULTURE increases the likelihood of blacks not being taken care of as well as whites. It is a choice of their own… They damaged themselves before they ever got to the hospital.”

The nurse’s email goes on for several pages, acknowledging health disparities, but blaming it on the poor behavior of individuals and the pathology of Black culture. Textbook “culture of poverty” talk. The point is, two people can look at the same data and interpret it in dramatically different ways. One person narrowing the focus on individual bodies and behaviors and the other zooming the lens out to include all of the factors that actually lead to illness and premature death.

We’ve all heard (or thought) some version of this distorting narrative in our personal and professional lives. And so, one of the commitments we can all make, is not to let it slide! Because the narrow interpretation is not simply lazy or “just another opinion.” It’s wrong and dangerous.

When it comes to the pandemic, for example, we hear a lot of talk about the “pre-existing biological conditions” that make poor and racialized people more vulnerable to the virus. But we have to be very clear to name the pre-existing social conditions in housing, employment, and healthcare that have impacted communities well before the pandemic. The social ills of our nation, not simply the biological ailments of individuals, are leading to higher rates of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous death so far.

So in wrapping up, I’ve been reflecting on a recent essay titled “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” by one of my favorite thinkers, Arundhati Roy. In it, she reminds us that, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It’s a portal, a gateway between one world and the next… We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

To do this, though, I think, we have to reckon honestly with all that we’ve been carrying! Because, if not careful, we almost certainly will carry with us dead ideas, sometimes disguised as new and enlightened.

When we have a more expansive understanding of what ails us, we can develop a more transformative approach to healing. Even the fact that we have a hard time imagining a society with universal healthcare or a world without prisons is a reminder that our imagination of what is possible is constricted.

Imagination is not an ephemeral afterthought that we have the luxury to dismiss or romanticize. But a tool, a resource, an animating part of social work.

In fact, we should acknowledge that most people are forced to live inside someone else’s imagination! And one of the things we have to come to grips with is how the nightmares that many people are forced to endure are the underside of elite fantasies about efficiency, profit, security, and social control.

Racism, among other axes of domination, helps produce this fragmented imagination—misery for some, monopoly for others. This means that for those of us who want to construct a different social reality, one grounded in justice and joy, we can’t only critique the world as it is, we have to work on building the world as it should be. This is social work.

That said, I know this is a lot to ask! The more we understand how oppression is perpetuated, the more overwhelming it feels, as we each try to figure out what part we can play. But I want to suggest that precisely because of the many ways that inequity takes shape, in our laws and policies, in our norms and practices, institutionally and interpersonally, this means that no matter what context we’re working in, we can find ways to work against injustice and work for solidarity.

In the process, we can draw upon the example and insights of so many people who did this work before us. Like the incomparable James Baldwin, who said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So, I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.”

And like the brilliant Audre Lorde, who wrote in her Cancer Journals: “I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change, nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in the battle.”

She goes on to say, “It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside, and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death.” Drawing upon this ancestral wisdom, Baldwin, Lorde, and so many others, every single one of us has a role in envisioning and building a more just and joyful society than the one we currently inhabit.

If this virus has taught us anything, it’s that something that is invisible can be deadly. This also means that seemingly small things, small decisions, small actions can have exponential effects in the other direction—affirming life and invigorating society. This is social work!


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