Much attention has been paid to the opioid crisis in recent years, and for good reason. Opioid-related deaths doubled between 2000 and 2015, and rose more than 20% between 2015 and 2016.
This epidemic has largely been portrayed during the past decade as a problem affecting young whites in suburban and rural areas. But in Illinois, and indeed much of the United States, this depiction is wholly inaccurate.
African American men and women, and Latino men, experienced an increase in opioid death rates from 2015 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, deaths among other demographic groups fell or remained the same.
Illinois is one of five states where the death rate from opioid overdoses among African Americans is higher than that of the general population, based on 2015 data. The same is true in Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin and West Virginia. In West Virginia and Wisconsin, the African American death rate was nearly double that of the white death rate.
Across Illinois, nearly one out of four opioid overdose deaths was of an African American in 2016. In Chicago, nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths were of African Americans. Since African Americans account for only about 15% of the state’s population and about 32% of Chicago’s population, those statistics show that black people are dying at a disproportionately high rate.
So why has this crisis been “whitewashed,” leaving out the communities of color who have been powerfully impacted by the epidemic for decades? The most likely reason is the false narrative that occurs about drugs and drug use.
The reality is that African Americans and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates. Yet the narrative that most Americans believe, and that the media perpetuates, is that African Americans are more likely to use drugs. And not just any drugs, but especially “hard drugs” like cocaine and heroin. This false narrative also says that African American people and communities cannot control themselves in the face of these drugs, so the only corrective course of action is swift, punitive control.
This is not a new narrative. It has existed since 1914, when it was used as a rationale to ensure the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act. In 1914, the respectable New York Times ran an editorial by a medical doctor that referred to law enforcement reports stating that cocaine use among African Americans made them so difficult to control that one North Carolina police chief switched to higher caliber weapons to subdue blacks who were under the influence of the drug.
The Times editorial also went on to say:
“As far as the thousands who have already formed the habit are concerned, there is little choice of remedies. Once the Negro has formed the habit, he is irreclaimable. The only method to keep him away from taking the drug is by imprisoning him. And this is merely palliative treatment, for he returns inevitably to the drug habit when released.”
So in the early 2000s, when it was clear that opioid use was increasing among white users, this existing narrative was called into question. Research showing that young, white suburban and rural people were beginning to use heroin challenged the prevailing assumptions about who uses these drugs and what the appropriate response should be. If “good kids” from the suburbs could use heroin, should they also be subjected to the same punitive system that had been locking up mostly African Americans for decades? The answer to this question has formed the basis for ongoing public health advocacy over the past several years.
Late last year, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released its final report, prompting the president to label the epidemic a public health emergency.
Throughout our nation’s history, the narrative has been clear. If a drug crisis is perceived to affect white Americans, it’s a public health crisis. If a drug crisis is perceived to impact African Americans, it’s a criminal justice problem. The War on Drugs stands as a stark reminder of this.
The structural racism in our health and criminal justice systems has led to public policy that, again and again, pointedly targets African Americans. The false narrative continues: Blacks need – no, require – prison. There is no drug treatment that will work.
The recent President’s Commission report reserved only a few sentences for discussion of the epidemic’s impact on our country’s communities of color. When we talk about a health crisis and we assume that people of color aren’t affected, we don’t acknowledge the victims and we don’t direct resources to their communities.
The failure to make this clear is not just an affront to the devastation wreaked in our communities. It also ignores this truth: In all issues, including this one, Black Lives Matter.