Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

For Black History Month, the Public Broadcasting Company (PBS) series Eyes on the Prize has been the go-to source for the most comprehensive understanding of the struggle for civil rights for black Americans. It is worth reviewing for those who have not seen it or have not watched it in a while. It tells the story of black Americans’ struggle for fundamental civil rights—the right to vote and unrestricted access to public spaces. It is history some think should be forgotten, but knowing from whence we have come helps to keep our eyes on the prize, a functioning multiracial society that works for everyone. Also, put Eric Foner’s The Seconding Founding and W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction in America on your must-read list if you want a better understanding of how we got where we are.

So, hats off to the researchers and historians as we celebrate another Black History Month. This is time to recognize the contributions of people of color to civilization that often get buried in or omitted from history books. It is also a time for white historians to make an effort to understand the historical perspective beyond the European point of view. While I appreciate the genius of Mozart, Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven—whose Ninth Symphony is my all-time favorite music composition—we rarely hear about the music of preeminent black composers, including women like Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, who can be celebrated again next month when we focus on the historical perspective of women.

Social work researchers, especially those engaged in qualitative research and community-based participatory research (CBPR), are helping to document the struggles and history of communities that are often neglected. Unfortunately, CBPR is underutilized in academia because it is labor-intensive and retards the process of accumulating publications needed for promotion and tenure. Getting a high score on the h-index often trumps finding solutions to the problems we are committed to addressing. The h-index is an important measure of scholarly achievement and impact on the social work knowledge base and profession.  Scholars who score well should be acknowledged, as was done recently in the article by David Hodge and Patricia Turner. H-index scores should not, however, be conflated with measuring the impact one has on the social work profession and society in general.

As a self-proclaimed political social worker, like-minded colleagues and I operate in an environment where there are more productive ways to communicate than scholarly journal articles. Yet, social workers in the political arena often have the most profound influence on policy and people’s lives. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass is one example. While in Congress, she created the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, which has brought together Democrats and Republicans to create legislation and policy that is improving the lives of young people placed out of their homes. She is already significantly impacting homelessness in LA despite just getting elected.

Social work historians are often inclined to write books and articles and may not accumulate high h-index scores depending on the journals in which they publish. Social work scholars such as Iris Carlton-LaNey and Jerome Schiele are often not recognized for their contributions because they need to build high h-Index scores. But they ensure that social work scholarship and history include the perspective of the black experience. Dr. Schiele has his critical race theory that he calls the Afrocentric Paradigm. I would not know about the many black social workers who preceded me without the work of Dr. LaNey.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is obsessed with whitewashing history by banning the historical perspective of black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ people. Obviously, he would like to discount their views and shield future generations from the sometimes shameful and painful truth of this nation’s past and present. Unfortunately, the more he tries to suppress the truth, the more interest grows in knowing what he desperately wants to conceal. His is a bankrupt crusade. Contrary to Kellyanne Conway’s premise, there are no alternative facts but undoubtedly alternative perspectives. The enslaver could never write history from the perspective of those in bondage. There may be subjective views of reality, but the facts are, well, just facts.

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