By Aswad Walker
Like many Black people, I kept up with the nation’s opioid crisis with maximum sideeye. And if you’re reading this, you most likely know why.
The massive wave of addictions and deaths and crime that came as a result of individuals using opioids was not demonized and labeled an American scourge. The individuals who were the actual addicts, the ones committing a crime wave that spread from “sea to shining sea,” weren’t castigated, criminalized or branded as immoral, soulless savages. Naw. None of that happened.
These drug abusers weren’t even called drug abusers. They were wraped in the arms of national sympathy. Their addiction was determined to be more disease than crime. Local and national governments bent over backwards to provide the help and supports and counseling and therapy that these folk hooked on opioids needed to break free of their addictions and return to society as contributing members, welcomed by one and all with open arms.
Amazingly, the response to the opioid epidemic was exacty what so many healthcare professionals, community activists and others screamed for, for decades as the morehumane and campassionate way to respond to individuals who become addicted to drugs.
But when those initial calls were being made, they fell on deaft ears. Why? You already know. Because when those cries were the loudest, it wasn’t a wave of opioids that was destroying individual lives, families and whole communities. Rather, it was crack.
And even though whites used and abuse all illegal drugs at the same rate as Blacks, crack addiction was segregated from cocaine addiction, and labeled a Black thing. Read an illegal, immoral, criminal thing.
Human beings who fell victim to crack addiction weren’t considered human. They certainly weren’t treated that way by politicians, law enforcement or even some in the medical community. Because crack was defined as “Black,” punishments were harsher. Much harsher, than punishments for powder cocaine use. Powder cocaine being viewed as a rich and middle class white person’s drug of choice.
Whole families and communities were devastated and destroyed as crack addicts were labeled public enemy number one. Politicians seeking to score points with blood-thirsty voters, fellow politicans and law enforcement, enacted draconian “three-strikes” policies and other laws that put many diseased folk (sick from their addition) in and under jail cells.
In stark contrast, addicts who came to their addiction by way of opioid abuse, a crowd that has been as lily white as American country clubs, often found treatment centers welcoming them, with the love and support of the same politicians,law enforcement members, and others who sought to lock cell doors and throw away the keys on those hooked on crack.
Currently on Hulu, the mini-series Dopesick chronicles how Purdue Pharma leadership were the biggest drug dealers on the planet, purposefully getting folk addicted on their opioid OxyContin to the tune of billions in profits for the owning Sadler family.
The show is compelling, especially if you possess any level of humanity. Because, Dopesick goes all the way in on showing the horrid impact of drug addiction, especially when it becomes a tsunami of abuse.
Dopesick also shows what so many of us already knew: that the larger society treated these overwhelmingly white addicts with humane compassion.
What Dopesick doesn’t show is what news outlets like theGrio are reporting: one of the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the massive rise in opioid abuse and addiction by Blackfolk.
According to health officials at the Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a span of one-year overdose deaths started trending upward, jumping a whopping 30% in the latest year alone. These health officials estimate that upwards of 100,000 folk in this country died of drug overdoses. And many are linking these overdose deaths to increased opioid use.
Again, according to theGrio and their article entitled, “Opioid Crisis Hitting Black Communities at Alarming Rates Amid Pandemic,” the drug crisis is hitting communities of color especially hard.
The article reported, “The problem is still getting worse and the deaths are going up at an even faster rate and this is a public health emergency,” says Dr. Andrew Kolodny, Medical Director of Opioid Policy Research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. It also quoted Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who said, “At the beginning of the opioid crisis it was primarily White Americans who were impacted by this, but a growing number of Black Americans are dying at alarming rates.”
Without sharing all the gory details and statistics that you can find via theGrio article, I’d rather focus on the future, and wonder aloud, “Will this same compassion for those addicted to opioids continue to exist as more Blacks find themselves in the addiction ranks?”
I hear President Joe Biden called the data on these rising opioid addiction numbers as “a tragic milestone.” He’s even calling on Congress to address the issue. But will a Congress that is made up of nearly 50% white nationalists or white nationalist-leaning folk who are trying to suppress Black votes, silence Black voices and ignore Black, Brown and white calls for criminal justice reform, be willing to treat Black people diseased by addiction with the same humanity and compassion and atience and support and love that they displayed to white addicts?
History suggests not. According to Dr. Carol Anderson, author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, and Joel Edward Goza, author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, one of the most consistent things in the history of the United States of America is for Blacks to be attacked by viscious, white violence–physical, political or both–every time Black people are perceived to receive some service or “win” a law or policy that protects their rights.
In short, both Anderson, Goza and many others, point out that just the mere perception that Blacks are receiving something, anything that could benefit Black people, white society–meaning politicians, businessfolk, the wealthy and the dirt poor–loses its day-yum mind and goes about the insidious business of making Black people pay with more mistreatment or less access to what are suppose to be our rights as citizens.
Treating Black people caught in the grips of opioid addiction like whitefolk in those same shackles will be viewed by many as Blacks receiving something that could be of benefit–humane treatment and care.
We just might want to invest some time, resources and brainpower into how we are going to care for our own. Because, if historic patterns serve as a predictor of things to come, we may not want to hold our breathe on receiving that humane treatment so freely given to other communities.