Drug Addicts Today Are Getting More Love & Compassion, Especially If They’re White

With the so-called “War On Drugs” so clearly a political and moral failure, Americans suffering from addiction today live in a more compassionate climate. More and more, drug addicts are seen as struggling with a public health issue, rather than one based on notions of crime and moral ineptitude. As the country faces a roiling opioid epidemic, politicians and policymakers are engaging in proactive measures to address the crisis, even going so far as to sanction safe havens for drug addicts to use drugs like heroin and cracking down on medical doctors who are too generous in prescribing painkillers.

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However, the apparent softening of federal, state, and media responses to addiction serve as a reminder of how different the tone was when the crack epidemic engulfed the country in the 1980s. In 2017 America, more and more White people are dying from drug overdoses and related crimes, whereas three decades ago, it was overwhelming poor and Black people who fell prey to drugs. With Trump in office and what appears to be so much thoughtful and kindly worded attention paid to addiction taking place today, conversations about how race affects the way we talk about drug addicts has come into sharp focus.

In a 2016 video package from PBS, Cardozo School of Law professor Ekow Yankah touched on the drastic change of tone, saying that today, “Our nation has linked arms to save souls…even tough-on-crime Republican presidential candidates now speak with moving compassion about the real people crippled by addiction.” However, he reminds us, “It wasn’t always this way.”

When America was facing widespread addiction issues three decades ago, particularly during the crack-cocaine epidemic, policymakers, pundits, and politicians weren’t as compassionate. As Yankah explains, that’s because the victims of the epidemic were primarily poor and of color. “Television brought us endless images of thin, Black, ravaged bodies, always with desperate, dried lips. We learned the words ‘crack baby,'” he says. Pointing to a lack of “national compassion” for the millions suffering, Yankah says that the narrative put forth by the government and the media instead “warned of super predators, young, faceless Black men wearing bandanas and sagging jeans.”

Images of “super predators” were seared into the collective American consciousness to such a degree, Yankah argues, that “no matter how far from [Black Americans’] lives crack was, [all became] guilty by association.” Compounding the insidious racism of the ordeal was the fact that, rather than point to government failures, the crack epidemic was instead packaged as a symptom of the “collective moral failure” in Black communities. “Welfare mothers and rock-slinging thugs” became scapegoats, he says, while those responsible for creating the environment to sustain a cycle of addiction were not addressed. The only answer the government and media seemed to put forth was “cordoning off the wreckage with militarized policing.”

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30 years later, and militarized policing remains a real issue for America’s oppressed. In that sense, not much has changed. However, there is a stark contrast to the drug epidemic currently engulfing the country: more and more victims are White. As opioids and heroin devastate predominantly White cities in states like Vermont and Massachusetts, a dramatic shift in tone emanating from media and politicians underscores America’s continued prejudice in its approach to discussions about addiction. As Yankah points out, “today, police chiefs facing heroin addiction are responding not by invoking war, but by trying to save lives and get people into rehab. Suddenly, crime is understood as a sign of underlying addiction, rather than a scourge to be eradicated.”

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Such compassion was not extended to America’s crack-addicted citizens of the 1980s. “When the faces of addiction had dark skin, the police didn’t see sons and daughters, sister and brothers. They saw brothas, young thugs to be locked up, not people with a purpose in life,” Yankah says. “White heroin addicts get overdose treatment, rehabilitation and reincorporation. Black drug users got jail cells and ‘just say no.'”

So where does the federal response to today’s drug epidemic stand, now that Obama is out of office? Last week, Donald Trump signed an executive order to address the opioid epidemic. His “Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis” will be submitting a report, due in the fall, which outlines the crisis and puts forth some solutions. As reported by Vox, “the commission will identify existing federal funding for the epidemic, locate places that have limited drug treatment options, review opioid addiction prevention strategies, and make recommendations to the president to improve the federal response to addiction and the opioid crisis.” The Commission couldn’t come at a better time. According to the same report, “the opioid epidemic has led to the biggest drug overdose crisis in US history, with more than 560,000 people — more than the entire population of Atlanta — dying from drug overdoses between 1999 and 2015.” ‘

In a separate report from Vox published April 4, “how racial bias and segregation molded a gentler response to the opioid crisis” is explored. Writer German Lopez explores the angle by taking a look at New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie (who will head the aforementioned Commission) and his rhetoric around the opioid epidemic. Lopez argues that Christie is able to speak with compassion about the issue because he had a close friend who fell victim to addiction. Christie, as well as more and more politicians it seems, are approaching drug addiction from a public-health (rather than criminal justice) angle, because they have a direct affiliation with someone in the grips of opioid addiction. “A close experience with a personal friend or family member drove them to understand drug addiction and the opioid crisis in a much more compassionate way,” Lopez writes. From Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, who both had children addicted to substances, to Trump’s alcoholic older brother, it seems that more and more (White) lawmakers are able to sympathize with addicts.

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While empathy from White communities helps protect and save the growing number of White addicts, that empathy was hard to find (or even nonexistent) when Black people were dying at similarly high rates. As Lopez writes:

“the crack epidemic, because it largely hit Black, urban communities, was often framed as a drug problem of ‘other’ people. The problem in much of the public eye, in fact, wasn’t that people were suffering from crack addiction, but that people’s crack addiction and the black market for crack led to crime and murders that could, in turn, damage White communities. So the focus fell on controlling crime — and that led to more punitive ‘tough on crime’ policies, largely affecting communities of color.”

He also points to the failure of the media to report about addiction bias-free:

“Consider the media coverage of the crack versus opioid epidemics: While the crack epidemic gave rise to headlines like ‘New Violence Seen in Users of Cocaine’ in the New York Times, the opioid epidemic has led to sympathetic headlines like ‘In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs’ in the same newspaper 28 years later.”

But the racism isn’t just in city halls and newsrooms. It’s even present in doctor’s offices, but perhaps not in the way we’d imagine. Lopez writes, studies have shown that “doctors have generally been more reluctant to prescribe painkillers to minorities, because doctors mistakenly believe that minority patients feel less pain or are more likely to misuse and sell the drugs.” By more wantonly prescribing such pills to White people, the doctors seem to think they are helping their patients, but in reality have only helped exacerbate opioid addiction in White communities. ” In a perverse way, this shielded minority patients from the tsunami of opioid painkiller prescriptions that got white Americans hooked on opioids, including heroin, and led to a wave of deadly overdoses,” he writes.

For more of Lopez’ exhaustive exploration of the role race plays in our response to drug addiction, read “When a drug epidemic’s victims are White” at Vox.

Beyond the statistics, numbers, and political back-and-forth about addiction, it’s important to remember that the disease does not discriminate. What does discriminate is structural and systemic modes of control that, in the context of addiction, are clearly choosing sides. As Ekoh Yankah expressed in the PBS video, “Next time we or even you are faced with an indictment of institutionalized racism, maybe we can swallow the knee-jerk dismissal or the condescending finger-wagging, and imagine if you would accept such treatment of your own. We don’t have to wait until a problem has a White face to answer with humanity.”