Op-ed: When addiction has a white face

Writing in the New York Times today, professor Ekow Yankah gives voice to a reality that we must surely have noticed by now: The rush to stem the heroin problem as a health problem reflects the new whiteness of the crisis.

“The plight of Black America was evidence of its collective moral failure — of welfare mothers and rock-slinging thugs — and a reason to cut off all help,” Yankah recalls of the crack problem when it was an African American epidemic. “Blacks would just have to pull themselves out of the crack epidemic. Until then, the only answer lay in cordoning off the wreckage with militarized policing.”

But the reality of crimes and addiction treatment depends on how much we care about the victims of crime and those in the grip of addiction.

That’s why the crack epidemic got a “just say no” and “tough on crime” response.

That’s why the heroin problem is getting a more sane approach.

It would be cruel and perverse to seek equal abandonment of those now struggling with addiction as payback for the failures of the ’80s. Nor do I write in mere hopes of inducing cheap racial guilt. The hope, however vain, is that we learn from our meanest moments.

Even today, as black communities face pressing problems of addiction and chronic unemployment and the discrimination in hiring that helps to perpetuate it, many are dedicated to ignoring racial prejudice. Faced with searing examples of unconscionable police violence against unarmed black men, of concocted justifications laid bare by video, too many still speak of isolated cases and overblown racial hysteria. With condescending finger-wagging, others recite the deplorable statistics of violence within poor minority neighborhoods as though racist policing were an antidote or excuse. Both responses ignore that each spectacular moment of unjustified police violence represents countless instances of institutionalized racial control across generations.

More race: Black Lives Matter vows to shut down Crashed Ice event (MPR News)

  • Anna

    Martin Luther King, Jr. started a process that we have yet to finish. While some progress was made, we still have a monumental distance to go.

    The ugliness can no longer be hidden on the back pages of a newspaper.

    While the black race suffers the most, other minorities are not immune to racial profiling and inequality. Now we have turned our collective fear, anger and ignorance on the Muslim population, labeling them brutal savages for the actions of a small percentage of their population.

    “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

    ” A man cannot serve two masters and serve them equally well. He will either love the one or hate the other.”

    This country has to focus on what unites us, not what divides us. Our government, our schools and our businesses must reflect the diversity of our society. What we are doing now is apartheid with an American twist.

    I never could understand the phenomenon of white flight. Why would you leave a good neighborhood just because a person of color moved in? If a family of color can afford a house in an affluent suburb don’t you think they have the wherewithal to interact and contribute to the neighborhood?

    Are we going to start another civil war because we cannot agree to disagree, accept our differences and live in peace with each other?

    Eleanor Roosevelt said it so well, “No one can make you feel inferior unless you let them.”

    • Fred, Just Fred

      “This country has to focus on what unites us, not what divides us. Our government, our schools and our businesses must reflect the diversity of our society.”

      I wonder if you could see the conflict lurking in that statement?

  • Rob

    That’s right – when the politicians’ own kids and the kids of their powerful constituents are the ones suffering, the approach will most certainly be a little kinder and gentler. ‘Twas ever thus.

  • PaulJ

    He might have a point, but he sounds like a troll.

  • John

    I don’t think anyone can put together a coherent argument disagreeing with what you’ve written above. There’s little doubt that when the drug problem was predominantly non-white, the proposed solution was prison time, and now that the biggest drug problem is white folks hooked on opium, a markedly different approach is being tried. (I’m not convinced this approach will solve the problem either – people have been doing drugs forever. Right now, it happens to be that opium is the opiate of the masses.)

    What I do wonder is this:

    What can we do about correcting the wrong that was done with the treatment of poor, predominantly black, people who were hooked on crack? I mean, beyond admitting we (as a society) messed up in how we handled that. I don’t take much credit for it (I wasn’t even a teenager in the 80’s), but again, as with all problems created since the dawn of time, the current generation is being asked to make reparations for the mistakes of the previous.

    One thing that’s missing from the discussion (and I don’t have answers either) is solutions. We’re all very good at pointing out problems. Finding answers is tough.

  • Kassie

    I don’t think this is quite on point. When I think of Meth, I think of poor whites. It isn’t that whites are now using heroin, it is that middle and upper class whites are using it. If heroin would have remained poor rural whites or urban people of color, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about it.

    • John

      Well, the solution for meth was somewhere in the middle, I think. With meth, prison time definitely happened, but also laws were passed that made getting the ingredients to make meth much more difficult (and also making allergy season much more miserable for those of us who relied on pseudoephedrine to clear the sinuses). My understanding is that these laws made for a really profitable situation for Mexican drug cartels, but that’s a slightly different topic.

      So, we did have a conversation about it (or at least I did, with a lot of people), and the conversation still had some racial overtone to it, but you’re right on point – as the income level of the addict’s family went up, prison time seems to have gone down. Perhaps another point to consider is economic class, in addition to race.

      edit: I should add that in discussions with one of my family members, who worked at a drug treatment center as opioid abuse was coming into fashion, he talked about how the timing correlated almost perfectly with all the laws coming into effect that reduced meth production in the US. I.E. the drug of choice shifted from meth to heroine right around that time.

      Obviously, this is both a nonstatistically valid observation, and may or may not indicate cause and effect, but one could pretty easily theorize that at least some segment of the population simply moved from meth to pain killers when heroine became cheaper than meth to dull reality.

  • Fred, Just Fred

    Maybe when meth becomes a white problem rural America will get some relief.

  • lindblomeagles

    Thank you so much Bob for writing this and making John’s comment the featured one for the day. As an African American, its very difficult for me to support the “kinder, gentler approach to white heroine addiction,” after decades of white nonsupport for marijuana and cocaine African American addiction. Yes, two wrongs don’t make a right; and yes, 21st Century America should be moving away from identifying which race benefits or loses in the development of all-American social programs. But when African American men were gunned down viciously by white police, do you know what some white people across the country were saying? That’s right – these DEAD Black men were criminals who deal drugs and have illegitimate children. Maine’s Governor La Page reiterated this same racist view just a few weeks ago. My fear, is that after we’ve helped all of the sick white addicts heal and get their families and jobs back, the spigot will turn off, and the same Black faces we’re STILL IGNORING NOW, who continue to be just as addicted as these white heroin addicts are, won’t get healing, their families, or their jobs back. Instead, you and I and the rest of the nation will once again hear the same, tired, historically bad, and untrue racist remark that Black drug addiction is a personal failing within Black people. If we’re really sincere about solving addiction, don’t focus on white heroin addicts. Focus on ALL ADDICTS.