If you learn what to look for, systemic racism becomes painfully apparent in even the most well meaning of conversations.
This morning, the first hour of the Diane Rehm show focused on the opiate addiction epidemic. There was a guest host, as Diane is having medical treatments.
Addiction to opiates has skyrocketed, mainly because of over prescription by health care providers for pain management. The cost in human life has been staggering, with addiction-related deaths skyrocketing.
The Governor of New Hampshire was invited as a guest, as was a mother of an adult child struggling with addiction after being prescribed opiates following a sports injury. There were 2 doctors. The message was clear: we have an unparalleled raging epidemic in this country and something has to be done.
There were strong arguments made against the criminalization of drug addiction and for reclassifying addiction as a health issue. Th guests also asserted that this addiction epidemic is worse than the heroin epidemic of the 70s and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 90s. One guest even stated that the death rate of young white men from opiate addiction has surpassed the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. All of this was held up to impress upon us the uniqueness of this particular addiction epidemic.
I was waiting for someone to raise the concern that the attention being paid to this epidemic is a result of its impact on middle class white communities. Now that it’s middle class white teenagers and suburban moms and middle class white men being brought down by addiction, this is when America pays attention.
It didn’t happen. No one brought it up.
Finally, someone submitted a question via email. It went something like this: The primary demographic experiencing this epidemic is white. Is this why we are giving this epidemic such attention? Is racism at play here?
The doctor spoke up. “Of course racism is at play here,” he said.
“Oh good,” I thought. “This is finally going to be addressed.”
“I hate to say it, but you could say that racism is the silver lining for blacks here. Doctors were more likely to prescribe opiates to whites than to blacks because they were concerned that blacks would sell them on the street. The doctors’ racism created a protective shield around black communities that were left relatively untouched by this epidemic.” (my paraphrasing…)
When is it ever appropriate to identify racism as having a “silver lining”? I call this paternalism of the most insidious kind. If the black community has truly been spared this particular addiction epidemic, that is a good thing, but we should never glorify or celebrate or express gratitude for the racism that fueled it. It is disrespectful and harmful to talk about racism as having a shielding impact on the black community. When has racism ever been a protective shield or silver lining to those being oppressed? How often have blacks experienced white health care providers distrusting them and then misdiagnosing serious health issues? While white doctors were refusing to prescribe opiates to blacks, black communities were criminalized, their kids were being pushed through the school to prison pipeline, and white fear of blacks was used to justify militarizing the police and building the biggest prison industrial complex in the world. And, when community leaders protested, when they advocated for better mental health resources, for educational resources, investment in infrastructure and employment initiatives, who listened? More often they were disregarded by whites and those with influence and power as lazy and unwilling to take responsibility for their community issues.
Why weren’t their voices enough? They should be been enough.
But it gets better. The doctor and other guests insinuated that an epidemic that is predominantly affecting white communities was helping the black community because “we” are beginning to understand that addiction isn’t a moral failing, it’s a disease. “We” are now understanding that prison isn’t the answer to addiction. “We” are understanding the complexity of drug abuse.
Apparently it is only through the tragic experience of addiction-related white deaths that “we” are able to understand the reality of addiction.
The deaths of black children should have been enough. The call from black leaders to decriminalize addiction should have been enough. The epidemic of the criminalization of black communities, which currently lands 1 in 3 black men in prison, should have been enough. The call for massive investment in predominantly black communities should have been enough.
But it wasn’t, and for many white Americans, it still isn’t. A drug epidemic isn’t an epidemic until it hits middle class white communities. The crack cocaine epidemic fuelled the “get tough on crime” prison industrial complex. The opiate epidemic is fuelling reform…
… reform that is years overdue.
White America owes the black community not only an apology, but also reparations for the irreversible damage done to countless communities and families. All “we” had to do was to listen, to believe, to care, and to act.