When a drug epidemic’s victims are white
German Lopez has a good report in Vox, with video at the link:
When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie discusses his compassionate approach to the ongoing opioid epidemic, he frequently brings up a close friend from law school. He describes this friend as perfect — incredibly smart, with a successful law practice, with a beautiful and brilliant wife and kids, and both good looking and athletic. “So we loved him, but we hated him,” Christie joked at a 2015 town hall. “Because the guy had everything, right?”
This friend, however, had a drug problem. Starting with a back injury from running, he was prescribed opioid painkillers. That initial prescription eventually grew into a full-blown addiction. And despite Christie’s and others’ attempts to help, the addiction consumed his friend, who Christie has kept anonymous to protect the family from media attention. Over the next 10 years, despite some stints in rehab, his friend lost his wife, his home, his money, the ability to see his girls, his law practice, and even his driver’s license. Then, he overdosed and died at 52 years old.
“By every measure that we define success in this country, this guy had it,” Christie said. “He’s a drug addict. And he couldn’t get help. And he’s dead.” He added, “When I sat there as the governor of New Jersey at his funeral, and looked across the pew at his three daughters sobbing ’cause their dad is gone, there but for the grace of God go I. It can happen to anyone. And so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover, because every life is precious.”
This is the kind of story that not just Christie but countless lawmakers across the US have told in reaction to the opioid epidemic: how a close experience with a personal friend or family member drove them to understand drug addiction and the opioid crisis in a much more compassionate way — one that emphasizes treating drug misuse as a public health issue.
Similarly, President Donald Trump, who appointed Christie to a commission studying the opioid epidemic, often brings up the alcohol addiction that consumed and killed his brother. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who briefly ran for president in 2016, also mentionedher daughter’s death due to drugs on the campaign trail. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wrote an article on his daughter’s drug struggles on Medium. And that doesn’t even begin to get into the many, many state lawmakers who have shared similar stories about husbands, wives, sons, daughters, friends, and coworkers who struggled with addiction.
This, they all say, has led them to believe in the need for better, comprehensive drug treatment.
These stories show how lived experiences and personal relationships can influence serious policy decisions. After all, politicians bring up the people in their lives who they saw needlessly suffer and die due to drugs for a specific purpose: to call for an approach to addiction focused on public health over criminal justice.
But in this way, these stories also expose the impact of another issue that may not seem related at first: race.
Even after decades of progress on racial issues, America remains a very segregated country. On a day to day basis, most Americans closely interact only with people of the same race. And that impacts our policies.
Consider the opioid epidemic, which contributed to the record 52,000 drug overdose deaths reported in 2015. Because the crisis has disproportionately affected white Americans, white lawmakers — who make up a disproportionate amount of all levels of government — are more likely to come into contact with people afflicted by the opioid epidemic than, say, the disproportionately black drug users who suffered during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. And that means a lawmaker is perhaps more likely to have the kind of interaction that Christie, Trump, Bush, and Fiorina described — one that might lead them to support more compassionate drug policies — in the current crisis than the ones of old.
Is it any wonder, then, that the crack epidemic led to a “tough on crime” crackdown focused on harsher prison sentences and police tactics, while the current opioid crisis has led more to calls for legislation, including a measure Congress passed last year, that boosted spending on drug treatment to get people with substance use disorders help?
Ithaca, New York, Mayor Svante Myrick, who’s black, told me this has led to resentment in much of the black community in his predominantly white town. “It’s very real,” he acknowledged. The typical response from his black constituents, he said, goes something like this: “Oh, when it was happening in my neighborhood it was ‘lock ’em up.’ Now that it’s happening in the [largely white, wealthy] Heights, the answer is to use my tax dollars to fund treatment centers. Well, my son could have used a treatment center in 1989, and he didn’t get one.”
Still, Myrick added, “I’m as angry about this as anybody. But just because these are now white kids dying doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care, because these are still kids dying.”
Stories like Christie’s, Trump’s, Fiorina’s, and Bush’s show one of the many ways we got to this point, where a policy response can vary largely based on a victim’s race. They demonstrate that it’s not just personal racism that can lead to racially disparate policies, but structural factors like segregation as well. . .
The US really needs to look at how racism is baked into our institutions, social structures, and daily lives. Until we talk about how race matters a lot in daily life, and listen with empathy to those who endure the on-going impact of racism, we as a nation will continue to be weakened by fault lines the prevent us (as a nation) from reaching our full potential.
Read the full article. There’s a lot more.