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Racial discrimination continues to exist as a social problem in spite of, and perhaps because of, the passage of affirmative action and equal opportunity laws. Looking at the various models available to help give us perspective on social problems will enable us to choose a method that is best able to address each aspect of a social problem.

According to the individualist model, racial discrimination exists because the victims of discrimination fail to take advantage of the opportunities that have been made available. If the victim of discrimination wasn’t lacking in initiative or discipline, he or she would seize all available opportunities and succeed on a level equal to that of the oppressor. The individualist model asserts that victims of discrimination are much different in character than those who do not experience discrimination and blames their dysfunctional behavior for their continued repression. This model fails to look at the ways in which society as a whole doesn’t equip many people to succeed and criticizes different cultural attitudes as wrong or undeserving, rather than simply “different.” The medical model is one example of an individual model that looks at victim pathology rather than society as a reason for ongoing oppression and/or discrimination.

Those who subscribe to an individualist model attempt to “fix society” by focusing treatment on individuals who exhibit attitudes and behaviors that don’t conform to societal norms rather than looking at whether or not those norms benefit the greater good.

This approach is not particularly effective because it fails to address the individual behaviors that exist as a reaction to societal ills rather than as a cause of them.

The parent/family structures model presents one of the most common assumptions in psychology and one that has lasted over the years, that the personality of a child is shaped entirely by his or her parents. Using this we can look at either the victim or the oppressor – majority groups continue to practice discrimination because they model their own behavior after that of their parents, and minority groups remain discriminated against because they have come to accept this discrimination as part of their fate, an attitude perpetuated by their parents who doubtlessly learned to remain amongst the downtrodden from their own parents.

Because this theory enforces the notion that social problems occur when parents fail to provide good parenting, solutions in this model encourage both family interventions and removal of children from “unhealthy” homes in favor of placement in a more well-adjusted, normal, or balanced (read: white) family unit.

This approach is also not particularly effective because it fails to address the importance of a child’s social groups and the influences on behavior and actions that exist outside the home, such as those found at school or in civic groups.

The neighborhood structures model, in contrast to the parent/family structures model, looks at the influences in a person’s social environments and states that “bad influences” on an otherwise good person will lead a person to adopt the values of their peer group rather than those that are held in high esteem by society as a whole.

This attitude, that a neighborhood has the most influence over a person’s values and behavior, helps to perpetuate racism by attributing unfair and incorrect stereotypes to a group of people due to nothing more than simple geography. Regardless of a person’s actual character, proponents of this model are probably less likely to hire those raised in poor, inner city neighborhoods because of misperceptions, failing to recognize that people are bigger than their circumstances and can overcome the worst of any upbringing if given a chance.

Because this approach blames location for social problems, proponents of this model are content to intervene at the neighborhood level and when their methods aren’t effective in eliminating the problems, it’s assumed that the neighborhood and its residents are beyond repair.

The inter-group conflict model looks at the relationships between groups and holds that the established authoritative relations determine and create the biases between groups. These relationships between people and groups and the long-held beliefs that allow the relationships to “flourish” are seen as the source of societal conflict. A goal of social workers influenced by this model is to help people, within their communities, take back control of promoting their own self-interests.

Problems with this model come from minority groups getting stuck in a cycle of helplessness or lack of power. When no supports are provided for people to escape poverty, racism or other forms of oppression/discrimination, society continues to oppress those groups and continues acting negatively toward them because of their supposed inability to form healthy relationships with those who have seized resources. The inter-group conflict social worker tries to increase shared goods such as economic affluence and political power that will benefit everyone once a mutually beneficial relationship is established.

This approach is probably among the most effective in that it stresses symbiotic relationships between powerful and traditionally oppressed groups and helps find ways that they can not only co-exist, but work together in order to “beat the system.”

The systems-deviance model assumes that society works as a “giant machine” in which all systems work together. Because functions of society are all interdependent, none can exist without the others. According to this model, racial discrimination is a product of inertia – because of its established history it’s unlikely to simply go away. This model also looks at entropy, or the belief that all systems, no matter how stable, will eventually break down. Entropy should cause racial discrimination to play itself out, and according to the model it is easier to wait for this systemic breakdown rather than to try and change a system that is in motion. The systems deviance model also looks at homeostasis as a factor in allowing discrimination to continue, because a balance has been achieved that would be incredibly difficult to disrupt.

To attempt to correct or understand societal problems, social workers closely examine each level for the present dysfunction. The continued existence of racial discrimination could in part be blamed by larger societal “malfunctions” such as the industrial revolution that automated many jobs and left large numbers of unskilled labors without viable employment. Because swift changes in the structure of society can come from urbanization and immigration as well, it is worth looking at the influx of immigrants to this country at a time when those of African-American descent were just being allowed to exercise some very basic freedoms – because the entire country was in a state of upheaval, discrimination continued to exist as a way of preserving at least one social norm. The majority voice continues to rule because it possesses the power and influence that minorities struggle to grasp.

While systems entropy, homeostasis and inertia all work together to hold back broader change, a social worker is able to look at the ways in which minority values and voices are repressed and questions the goals that majority voices strive to achieve.

A model that might most closely explain racial discrimination is the institutional deviance model. According to this model, social problems have become incorporated into cultural ideologies. Whether or not we like to admit it, this country may pretend to have been founded on ideals such as “justice and liberty for all,” but we’ve embraced racial discrimination since the beginning. Rather than embrace cultural differences we took over the natives’ land, attempted to eradicate their population and brought humans from Africa here for the sole purpose of employing them as slaves.

Using this model, we can look at the history of our country and the attitudes that have lived on through many generations. Along with the systems-deviance model, the institutional-deviance model encourages a closer look at long-held beliefs and systems that actually present us with severe social problems.

The social-cultural premises model looks at another side of discrimination to state that not only do our social problems rely on cultural biases in order to sustain their existence, but they have rather consciously been put into place as a planned event. This model wants the social worker to look at the collective unconscious of a society and the ways in which we come to group consensus. This model is useful in looking at the unspoken rules involved in racial discrimination, but it is important to also look at why there never seems to be a universally accepted, permanent solution to social problems.

In order to use a contingency approach to “solve” racial discrimination, we must look closely at each level in which discrimination occurs. We need to assess each level of discrimination in order to determine both its severity and potential for change. Different intervention strategies must be used at each level in order to achieve the most desirable outcomes. Examples of strategies that can make a difference at their respective levels include individual and family therapy, drug and alcohol counseling, community empowerment, creation and maintenance of peer support groups and engaging people in social movements. Demonstrating the power that individuals have to effect social change is crucial in empowering people as well as social groups of all sizes to take back control from the forces that oppress them. In order to solve racial discrimination it is important to research all factors involved in this problem – the history of our country, personal and family beliefs, neighborhoods, adequate representation on a political level, etc.

Racial discrimination continues to be a social problem because it singles out small groups of people to get the short end of the stick based on nothing more than skin color while encouraging societal attitudes based on the stereotypes attributed to different races. In order to obtain facts pertaining to racism it is important, again, to look at the foundations on which this country was built, examine racial stereotypes, look at efforts made to curtail racism that have either failed or been successful, talk to members of minority groups to get their thoughts on racial discrimination and possible solutions and empower discriminated groups to highlight their positive contributions to society as a whole rather than focusing on their perceived weaknesses. Useful criteria for ranking the successes of various models in solving social problems would be to look at self-perception of the problem, perception of others in looking at the problem, decreased crime rates and increased success in schools and community pride. An important strategy in really addressing social problems is to work closely with discriminated populations rather than merely studying models presented to us by others. Implementation of this plan can be carried out by interviewing members of the discriminated population, introducing them to community resources, increasing their sense of empowerment and entitlement by involving them in lobbying their local elected officials and looking at the effects of and attitudes toward affirmative action and equal opportunity laws. Determining success in addressing the problem can be achieved by asking the population to reflect on the process of empowerment and share their perception of what has changed and what works or doesn’t work.

Source: The Practice of Macro Social Work, William G. Brueggemann, 2002

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