Heroin is on the rise among white people in suburbs. In 2013, more than 8,000 people died from heroin overdoses, the vast majority of whom were white. Communities and families rallied around these deaths, calling on state and federal officials to devote more resources towards rehabilitation and stop putting addicts behind bars. Their activism got the attention of politicians on both sides of the aisle, with presidential candidates bumping drug policy reform higher on their rhetorical list.
But activists for black addicts and prisoners have been calling for the same thing for years. Politicians and news outlets only took a more sympathetic eye when the victims were more white, more middle-class and more relatable. The lopsided response to black addicts and white addicts reveals that policy is still made with white people first in mind.
Drugs and racial discrimination have always gone hand in hand. America’s current drug policy is a relic of the Reagan-era crusade against crack cocaine, which experienced a massive surge in urban minority communities during the 1980s. And while prisons grew flush with addicts, the rehab centers of New York City went neglected; of 10 buildings set aside by the city government for rehab, only one was operational.
There were pushes back then, of course, very similar to the push occurring today, for less incarceration and more drug treatment options as a more humanitarian response to the epidemic of crack cocaine. But the problems of poor black families in the city were not an easy sell, not to the average politician, not to the millions of suburban white people who looked upon black addicts with disdain.
Doug Griffin, who lost his daughter to a heroin overdose, said it best: “When I was a kid, junkies were the worst … [now] they’re working right next to you and you don’t even know it. They’re in my daughter’s bedroom — they are my daughter.”
When the families of white heroin addicts can grab the attention of national news outlets and can turn public opinion against U.S. drug policy in a way that generations of black activists never could, that reveals an ugly truth about justice in the United States: when it comes to political mobilization, so much still depends on the color of your skin.
If this new push for activism is successful, both black and white addicts could begin receiving the treatment they deserve. But it sets a dangerous precedent for reform in America, wherein black people take the fall for years before white people decide that an issue is worth addressing. Until there is a change in the political culture, minority activism will always be second priority, and minorities will always take the fall first.
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Email Richard Shu at [email protected]