Rhetoric, Policy and Race: The story of two epidemics


FILE – In this June 13, 2017, file photo, a man injects heroin into this arm under a bridge along the Wishkah River at Kurt Cobain Memorial Park in Aberdeen, Wash. The government said non-fatal overdoses visits to hospital emergency rooms were up about 30 percent late last summer, compared to the same three-month period in 2016. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the numbers Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Almost fifty years ago, Richard Nixon famously declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” He stated his intentions to wage a war on drugs, the first in a long line of American wars on inanimate objects (see: terror, cancer or obesity). Of course, he did not really care about drugs. He stated in private that he was actually targeting communities which had been disruptive to his political efficacy, namely blacks and hippies.

Nixon’s ideology manifested itself in the 1980s, as crack cocaine became the most prevalent drug used by black and brown Americans. At this time, white America was still wholeheartedly afraid of cities, preferring the cul de sacs, wide streets and homogeneity of the suburbs. To many, crack was associated with violence, gangs and inner cities. Mass media further kindled the fire by sensationalizing violent crime in cities. Reagan capitalized on the moral panic, establishing mandatory minimum prison sentences for crack users. The Anti-Drug Abuse acts of 1986 and 1988 specifically punished users of crack, as opposed to its powdered variant, which was a conspicuously caucasian drug.

These policies underscore the way the crack epidemic was framed in terms of personal responsibility, pinning the blame on those who, in reality, needed help with their addiction. Many lawmakers came down hard on the users of the drugs, without regard for their rehabilitation and recovery. Bill Clinton further exacerbated this issue with his 1994 bill, which, among other things, implemented the three strike rule and increased federal funding for prisons.

The legacy of the draconian crime laws of the 80s and 90s is still being felt today. Black and brown communities were stunted by incarceration and demonization. Surging prison populations and subsequent overcrowding led to the emergence of corporate private prisons. These private prisons then became powerful enough to lobby against criminal justice reform and in favor of perpetuating mass incarceration, which has disproportionately affected people of color.

Fast forward 25 years, and America is faced with a new epidemic; opioids have ravaged the country, taking thousands of lives and ruining countless more. However, this time, the drug abuse is being met with compassion, unity and treatment. President Trump has asserted that “We are going to overcome addiction in America.”

Other politicians have echoed similar sympathetic sentiments. Chris Christie; “This is the medical crisis of our time.”

Ted Cruz; “It’s destroying lives.”

Hillary Clinton; “We can’t arrest or incarcerate our way out of it—we need a new approach.”

These statements indicate a tonal shift in the way America’s politicians view drug abuse. The blame has moved from the drug user to the drug. Cruz blamed the opioids themselves for destroying lives, absolving the user of responsibility. Bill de Blasio authorized the city of New York to sue pharmaceutical companies who he blames for the proliferation of opioids, while labeling the epidemic a “national tragedy.”

Why has this epidemic inspired such a drastic reversal in rhetoric? Time has certainly been a factor. In the past two decades, Americans have been increasingly willing to engage in discussions of mental health, addiction and legalization of drugs. Additionally, politicians may have simply learned their lesson from past policy mistakes. Perhaps this epidemic has reached a tipping point, prompting a sea change across the political spectrum.

While it is tantalizing to fully ascribe these progressions to wholesome causes, it is foolish. The opioid epidemic has garnered political sympathy because it is affecting white communities (not to imply that white communities are the only ones being affected). The same white Americans who were whipped into a frenzy by the crack epidemic and advocated for thinly-veiled racist, “tough on crime” policies are now being hit hardest.

Race, not progression, is the most important variable in the understanding response to the opioid epidemic. The privilege of being white in this country means that your addiction is met with empathy and lenience, while people of color are thrown in prison. The difference between a “public health emergency” and a “war,” is as stark as it can be; black and white.

Harry Zehner is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.

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