When Addiction Was Black, Compassion Was Hard to Come By

One of my favorite summer memories was going fishing with my mother’s brother. My Uncle Ricky would always tease me when I started to squirm when he scaled and deboned the fish he caught. He was sweet, amazing at martial arts, an Army veteran, and was among the 19.7 million Americans battling drug addiction. 

Because of his addiction and mental health illness, he was arrested for petty charges and put in overpopulated and understaffed jails with no access to mental health services just like the 69,000 Virginians incarcerated today.  Add to that, my uncle is African American. Since he couldn’t get any help, his life continued to spiral out of control. His mental health quickly deteriorated and he used drugs as an attempt to find peace.

My uncle didn’t get any help, but I hope everyone battling drug addiction receives the services they need. When I see the way society is handling the opioid crisis compared to the way it handled the crack epidemic, I see a huge disparity. I think about all those Black and Brown folks, like my Uncle Ricky, who were arrested, demonized, and forgotten during the crack epidemic. Then I shake my head when I see the martyrization of White opioid users every time I turn on the television.  It’s the same formula every time:

  • Angelic photos of White opioid users 
  • Backstory about how they used to play a sport/ do theater/on honor roll/insert other wholesome activity here ____________
  • Some external force causing them to try drugs. Usually an injury, divorce, or hanging out with a bad crowd

Humanizing the faces of those combating addiction is important.  But I still remember terms like “crack babies” used on national news sites and in government healthcare papers to describe Black and Brown babies born to addicted mothers. You will never hear White babies described as “ opioid babies” and we all know why.  

Opioid Crisis: A Mental Health Crisis

Last year, more than 1,200 Virginians died from opioid overdoses. The situation was so bad that the opioid addiction crisis was declared a public health emergency in Virginia by the governor. In response to the emergency, legislators passed bills that expanded the number of people legally authorized to dispense and administer the overdose reversal medication Naloxone.  On the national level,  the Senate drafted a health-reform bill, which  appropriated $45 billion to public health programs to fight the opioid crisis. 

The outcry of compassion and support from elected officials and law enforcement toward the opioid crisis greatly differs from the the villainization of crack cocaine users.  Race is the elephant in the room here.  Opioid addiction disproportionately affects both poor and rural White communities and middle-class, suburban White communities while the crack cocaine epidemic was viewed as a criminal issue in Black communities. The solution for the opioid crisis has been treatment while the solution for the crack epidemic was imprisonment.

 The Crack Cocaine Epidemic: A War on Drugs 

In the 1980s, Congress passed a series of laws that aimed to counter the widespread use of crack cocaine with tougher sentencing guidelines. Black crack cocaine users in urban areas were met with increased community policing, harsh sentencing,  very little drug counseling, and demonization in the media and by the government. 

Even today, Black people are far more likely to be arrested for selling or possessing drugs than White people, even though White people use drugs at the same rate. In fact,  White people are actually more likely to sell drugs, but they don’t face the same rates of imprisonment as the Black community. Today, the War on Drugs continues with huge social consequences for people of color including denying people with drug felonies the ability to vote or live in government-subsidized housing. 

Portrayal in the Media

Articles like “Children of the Opioid Epidemic” humanize opioid-addicted White mothers, explaining how and why they fall into drug addiction. When drug abusers were Black, the media portrayed crack-addicted Black mothers as people who made poor choices and were unfit for motherhood. In fact, there was a push for Black mothers to be sterilized. A non-profit organization in California, called Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity (CRACK),  offered drug-addicted women $200 if they  agreed to be sterilized, or to use another method of long term birth control. 

Drug addiction is an issue that impacts all Virginians and compassion should be shown to anyone battling drug addiction. I just want to see that same compassion for Black and Brown folks battling addictions to drugs. My uncle died from suicide after decades of mental illness and drug usage. The system didn’t care that he was a loving father, brother, and uncle. Unlike opioid users who have families and accidentally fall down the hole of addiction, he was just a scary Black man addicted to crack and “probably” engaging in crime. 

I want to see campaigns humanizing stories like his and most importantly I want to see mental health treatment, not mandatory minimums. If you agree then I ask you to think about substance abuse and mental health reform when making your decision during election time. Let’s elect politicians who share our vision for a  future that respects all of us, across our differences. This November, we need to come together as a community to elect strong progressives up and down the ballot. Pledge to vote here.

Check out Progress Virginia’s Other Coverage of race and racism: