Op-ed: When addiction has a white face

Writing in the New York Times today, professor Ekow Yankah gives voice to a reality that we must surely have noticed by now: The rush to stem the heroin problem as a health problem reflects the new whiteness of the crisis.

“The plight of Black America was evidence of its collective moral failure — of welfare mothers and rock-slinging thugs — and a reason to cut off all help,” Yankah recalls of the crack problem when it was an African American epidemic. “Blacks would just have to pull themselves out of the crack epidemic. Until then, the only answer lay in cordoning off the wreckage with militarized policing.”

But the reality of crimes and addiction treatment depends on how much we care about the victims of crime and those in the grip of addiction.

That’s why the crack epidemic got a “just say no” and “tough on crime” response.

That’s why the heroin problem is getting a more sane approach.

It would be cruel and perverse to seek equal abandonment of those now struggling with addiction as payback for the failures of the ’80s. Nor do I write in mere hopes of inducing cheap racial guilt. The hope, however vain, is that we learn from our meanest moments.

Even today, as black communities face pressing problems of addiction and chronic unemployment and the discrimination in hiring that helps to perpetuate it, many are dedicated to ignoring racial prejudice. Faced with searing examples of unconscionable police violence against unarmed black men, of concocted justifications laid bare by video, too many still speak of isolated cases and overblown racial hysteria. With condescending finger-wagging, others recite the deplorable statistics of violence within poor minority neighborhoods as though racist policing were an antidote or excuse. Both responses ignore that each spectacular moment of unjustified police violence represents countless instances of institutionalized racial control across generations.

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