That thumping sound you heard last week? The collective pat on the back that White, monied Americans are giving themselves for successfully shifting the conversation around drug addiction from swift judgment and harsh punishment to the need for treatment, tolerance and compassionate legislation.
So what changed? The face of the addict. Heroin use among White, middle class Americans has become a crisis-level threat while prescription pill addiction is wreaking devastation on suburbs and tiny outposts throughout New England and America’s heartland. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now cites drug overdose as the leading cause of injury death, overtaking motor vehicle accidents.
So-called crackheads, junkies and dope fiends that could historically be safely classified as “others” and “criminals” to be viewed with disgust and superiority, are suddenly as familiar and familial to the majority as the kid in the bedroom down the hall or the partner lying next to them at night.
This has sparked a major public outcry against the tyrannical tactics of American drug policy, the hallmark of which is severe and overtly discriminatory mandatory minimums, and the call for change in how addicts are viewed and treated. Suburban parents are successfully lobbying their legislators for more prevention and treatment efforts, police and government officials are beginning to see addiction as an illness rather than a crime or moral failing, and community leaders are demanding answers from presidential candidates as to how they plan to address the growing problem. And it’s working. President Obama just announced a $133 million proposal to address the prescription opiod abuse and heroin epidemic, and “The Dr. Oz Show” is organizing the first ever National Night Of Conversation, wherein parents are being asked to start a family conversation about stress, drugs and addiction over dinner on Nov. 19.
These are all fantastic efforts, and a more progressive stance around drug addiction in this country is not only welcome but also much needed. Then why am I so bitter about it?
Perhaps because earlier cries for more compassion and less criminalization by black community members, parents and activists were met by white Americans with willful ignorance, synchronized Kanye shrugs and constant reminders that zero tolerance was necessary to combat crime. The result? Thirty years of a government-sanctioned “war on drugs” that has resulted in the mass incarceration and stigmatization of an entire generation of black and brown people.
Not only that, but while poor, minority families and entire communities have been ravaged by addiction, strict policing and unforgiving enforcement, those with power and influence have displayed a continual and complete disregard. The seismic shift now that drug addiction is impacting white families and more affluent communities is yet another example of a frustrating national narrative: white lives are the only ones that matter.
Further, it points to the mind-boggling fact that the majority, especially right-wing Republicans, are seemingly only capable of thinking, acting and governing with a level of tolerance, empathy and understanding when it comes to their own families. Rabid right-winger Rush Limbaugh became a newfound advocate for lessening harsh drug laws once he experienced his own pill addiction. The unflinchingly conservative Dick Cheney became a vocal supporter of gay marriage rights once his daughter came out as a lesbian. And Republican darling, Nancy Reagan, began leading the charge for stem cell extraction and research only after her staunchly pro-life husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
As important as this newfound progress around drug addiction is for all Americans, it doesn’t change the fact that our issues, concerns and problems as black Americans will continue to go largely unanswered until members of the majority begin to step outside of themselves and view us as members of a greater American community. When we finally cease to be viewed as “those people” and become simply people, people worthy of tolerance, open-mindedness and understanding. Just as worthy as the kid in the bedroom down the hall or the partner lying next to them at night.
Lauren Craig, also known as InaWordFab, is a recovering lawyer, freelance writer, podcast personality and Glambassador. When she isn’t busy watching trashy television, Lauren is working her happiness like a full time job. Visit inawordfab.com to find out more and be sure to follow her @inawordfab on Twitter and Instagram.