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Building Solidarity Across Generations Against Racism and Ageism

christian gonzález-rivera, President, State Society on Aging of New York
July 2020

Understanding racial inequality in the United States today requires hearing the stories of people of color from across generations. Addressing these generations-old problems means persevering in the struggle, however fractured the movement towards justice may seem. Communities of color may do well with fewer police and more social workers, but social workers must come to terms with their roles as agents of both social control and social change. In our own field of aging, professionals must be alert to the ways that racism and ageism manifest in the institutions and systems meant to care for older adults.

These are just a few of the insights that members and affiliates of the State Society on Aging of New York (SSA) brought to an open discussion on race and the field of aging in the summer of 2020. The conversation, which was hosted by SSA virtually over Zoom, attracted more than 60 professionals in aging from across the state, including academics, social workers, direct service professionals, policy professionals, and older New Yorkers.

Participants shared stories of their experiences with racism either personally or professionally. Participants in their 60s and 70s talked about their experiences in the Jim Crow South and how those experiences shaped their lives and attitudes for decades. Younger participants talked about moving through professional life as people of color.

Some of the most perspective-shifting conversation was around how today’s public uprising in support of Black lives compares to the now mythical movements of the 1960s in support of civil rights. Some said that compared to the groundbreaking legislation of the Civil Rights Era, today’s government action on systemic racism seems lackluster. But people who lived through the struggles of the 60s said that the movements back then also seemed disjointed. In the 1960s, civil rights demonstrations were mostly comprised of young people and were not widely embraced. Today there is a much more diverse crowd on the streets supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and notably, there is more solidarity with societies around the world. Some older advocates lamented that the COVID-19 pandemic held them back from being out in the streets with the demonstrators.

One participant commented that they had never heard the word “social worker” used as often as they do now in the streets. At a time when conversations about rethinking the use of law enforcement to address social issues is more mainstream than ever, this could be a moment for social workers and others working at the community level to gain more support for their crucial work. Others warned that history shows that social workers can be both agents of social change and social control. While some see the potential of community-based mental health interventions replacing calls to police, others point out that in many lower-income communities, social workers are seen not as allies, but as the people who take children away from their families.

On the topic of law enforcement, there was disagreement whether the right strategy for addressing police brutality would be to reform the police or defund them. On the one hand, supporters of defunding the police pointed out that this does not entail disbanding the police altogether, but rather diverting resources to community-based interventions for social issues that can serve as alternatives to police. Others cautioned that many communities of color remember a time when they faced the problem of under-policing, which they say left them vulnerable to crime.

There is much work to be done in our own field of aging. Professionals in aging must be vigilant to how the institutions that are supposed to care for and support older adults can perpetuate racism and ageism. For instance, in the arena of guardianship, there is a significant imbalance of power between older people of color who are referred to Adult Protective Services and the mostly white medical professionals tasked with judging whether a person is competent enough to handle their life affairs. More diversity on the multidisciplinary teams that work on elder abuse cases in the five boroughs and elsewhere in the state is a step in the right direction. And more diversity among aging professionals ourselves is needed to change prevailing narratives around how older people exist in their communities, the challenges they face, and their sources of support and resilience.

One important point of agreement is that amplifying the stories of people of color from different generations is crucial to understanding the roots of today’s racial inequality. Telling the stories of people from across cultures is also important. Some pointed out that many people within communities of color face discrimination from others in their communities, particularly along the lines of class and skin tone. Also, immigrants to the United States may not understand the deep racist history in this country that has pushed so many Black Americans into an underclass, creating cross-cultural tensions.

Another important point of agreement was that change must come from communities of color. Older members of the conversations remember how the Black Panthers’ attempt at building community schools was stymied by the federal government. Many communities of color do not expect or want the federal government to step in because they do not trust that they will do right by their communities. At the same time, institutions that govern society, from the federal government down to service organizations must become more diverse.

Importantly, everyone should be a part of combatting racism and ageism. The educators in the conversation pointed out that they feel the onus is on them to find a way to talk about racism, even if it is uncomfortable. This is especially a challenge for white educators. One strategy is to find ways to practice cultural humility instead of striving for cultural competence. People have much to learn across generations, races, cultures, and classes about what it means to coexist and see each other as fully human.

This conversation occurred on July 1, 2020 over Zoom and was moderated by SSA president christian gonzález-rivera and past-president James O’Neill. Thank you to all who participated; SSA is committed to hosting future conversations and events on boosting diversity and combatting racism and ageism in the field of aging.