Outsiders-Within: Critical Race Theory, Graduate Education and Barriers to Professionalization

Article excerpt

This article uses the lens of critical race theory to examine the experiences of minority students in gad outside of the social work education classroom. Research has not critically analyzed the structures, policies and practices of graduate education programs and how they influence the socialization experiences of students. Qualitative interviews with 15 African American and Latino students reveal that their experiences are often characterized by marginalization and conflict. They suggest that certain aspects of the professionalization process create and support forces that reproduce stratified social relations. These problematic relations have a negative impact on minority students threatening their persistence and professional development. The perspectives of minority students in their own voices provide critical insights into actions graduate programs can take to change the quality of student life in predominantly White institutions.

Keywords: graduate education; critical race theory; minority students; professional socialization; marginalization

Introduction

Since the early 1970's when the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) acknowledged the importance of cultural diversity for social work education and practice, schools of social work have been mandated to increase diversity in the curriculum, faculty and student body. But that alone is not sufficient for a profession that seeks to promote social justice and social change. Schools must also confront the inequalities that continue to undermine the professional development of minority students. Because social work education takes responsibility for training future social workers, educators must critically assess the social and academic experiences of students. Only then can we uncover elements of the professionalization processes that have remained hidden. This requires ongoing evaluation of the range of course offerings and content, reading lists, paradigms and theoretical perspectives, student mentoring practices, and evaluation strategies. It is these aspects of graduate education that socializes students toward identifying with and committing themselves to professional careers as social workers.

A number of scholars have suggested that the socialization process presents barriers for minority students that may in part account for their under-representation in graduate education programs. Minority students often come to institutions of higher education with attitudes and behavior patterns that are different from the culture of graduate schools making their path through school more problematic than it might be for a student with the dominant forms of cultural capital. (Bowie and Hancock, 2000, Patterson-Stewart et. al. 1997; Romero and Margolis, 1999, Turner and Thompson, 1993, Weaver, 2000). How minority students experience the professionalization process should be of interest to social work educators because it is central to the theoretical, methodological and concrete work of the profession.

Theoretical Assumptions

While alienation and marginalization have been identified among minority students in graduate programs, much of this work is based on survey data. Most do not include students' daily experiences and interactions with others in the institution and there is little discussion of the links between what takes place in colleges and universities and the larger societal context.

The philosophical approach of critical race theory (CTR) offers a strong conceptual framework upon which to assign meaning and practical application of the research findings regarding minority students. Key components of CRT that are relevant to this study include the use of narratives to understand people's experiences; exploration of the ways in which institutional structures, practices and policies perpetuates racial/ethnic educational inequalities; emphasis on the importance of viewing policies within a historical and cultural context and a focus on how race and racism are interwoven into the structures practices and policies of colleges and universities (Crenshaw et al. …