Worsening Systemic Intolerance is an Existential Threat to our Nation | NASW Member Voices

Mar 24, 2023

By Mel Wilson, LCSW, MBA

America, seemingly suddenly, finds itself in the middle of the most existentially threatening crisis of racism and intolerance since the events leading up to and including the Civil War. As was the case over 160 years ago, the present-day neo-fascist and white supremacy crusade is directly driven racial enmity — compounded by deep animus toward religious minorities (Jews and Muslims), the LGBTQ+ community, as well as women’s reproductive rights.

This threat to democracy did not rise out of a vacuum. It has existed as a philosophy and a movement for many years. However, the candidacy and ultimate ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, effectively opened the door to normalizing racism by enthusiastically inviting white supremacists to have a visible leadership role in his campaign.       

More recently, Governor Ron DeSantis has perpetuated the disparagement of communities of color, religious minorities and the LGBTQ+ community for political purposes. The truth is, DeSantis and Trump are relative newcomers to aggressively undermining racial and social justice progress in the United States. A furtive movement toward repressive authoritarianism and overt assaults against Blacks and other communities has been multifaceted, and has played out in the shadows for a while.

For example, Trump and DeSantis have thrived in a political environment that already included a fully formed voter suppression drive that began with gutting of the Voting Rights Act  by the Supreme Court in 2013. That decision opened the flood gates for steadily expanding voter suppression laws in many states. When we add in the anti-female reproductive rights Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court, and many draconian ant-abortion laws that followed that decision, we can see gravity of the situation.

Many national political leaders, civil rights, religious organizations, and social justice groups have begun to ring the alarms about what is truly an existential crisis that threatened democracy as we know it. These groups agree that this threat to the African American community and others is both real and—if left unchecked—imminent. Indeed, the socio-economic impact of the attacks by America’s far-right is already being felt by  millions of Americans being targeted by nihilistic right-wing zealots.  

While the ominous resurgence of white Supremacy poses a danger to racial and religious minorities, we must not lose sight of the resurgence of white male authoritarianism that seeks to relegate women to second-class citizenship by denying them body autonomy.  Such repressive reproductive health policies and laws have already reached a level of dangerous hysteria by far-right legislators. This hysteria has resulted in extreme laws that criminalize abortion, including the death penalty. Relatedly, the State of Wyoming recently became the first state to impose criminal penalties to  “prescribe, dispense, distribute, sell or use any drug for the purpose of procuring or performing an abortion.”

The point is that criminalization of abortion, the precipitous rise in racism/ethnocentrism, and extreme anti-LGBTQ+ movement are all intersectional. What draws them together is that collectively they are targets of well-funded and well-coordinated political and socially conservative factions that have declared war on so-called “woke” values.

Truth be told, the term “woke” has been cynically and purposefully re-inserted into national lexicon by the far-right factions, led by Gov. DeSantis. As used by the far-right, the term has been weaponized by not so subtly linking the word to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the more recent Black Lives Matter activism. Thereby reinforcing Black resentment among whites, including white Supremacists.

All of which can sound like being just juvenile dirty tricks. However, what this coordinated ultra-conservative effort is by no means child play. These comprehensive attacks are deadly serious and are intent on escalating, leading up to and beyond the 2024 presidential elections.

Many far-right organizations are very experienced and singularly structured to mobilize against their perceived enemies. We should further remind ourselves that these groups are expert at mobilizing their members and keeping their members’ energy and commitment at a fever pitch.

As a result, it is without a doubt that the far-right is in full mobilization and strategy mode for their most important objective—winning the Office of the Presidency. Should they capture the Presidency (as well as the U.S. Senate), the far-right will have control of all three pillars of government.  The situation becomes more ominous when we realize that the Republicans also control 55% of  state legislative bodies.

It is far from clear that those of us who are in opposition to the far-right’s agenda are anywhere near as prepared when is comes to neutralizing this threat to democracy—especially when it comes to tightly coordinating their opposition with allies.

Such coordination has its challenges in that the necessary planning, mobilization and messaging among such a diverse stakeholder group will be expensive and logistically difficult. But, given that American democracy itself is hanging in the balance with the results of the 2024 elections,  stakeholder organization and advocacy group must make every effort to overcome those challenges.

Finally, it is important that social work leadership—especially NASW—become fully committed to respond to this threat by joining in coalition with national civil rights, human rights and religious organizations. With the social work professions long and storied history of social justice activism, we must take our rightful place in preventing resolving this existential crisis for American democracy.

Disclaimer: The National Association of Social Workers invites members to share their expertise and experiences through Member Voices. This blog was prepared by Mel Wilson in his personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the National Association of Social Workers.

Mel Wilson, LCSW, MBA, is the retired Senior Policy Advisor for the National Association of Social Workers. He continues to be active on a range social policy area including youth justice, immigration, criminal justice, and drug policy. He is a co-chairperson on the Justice Roundtable’s Drug Policy Reform Working Group.