By Kaitlyn D’Onofrio and Frank Kineavy
President Donald Trump last week called the opioid crisis that is stymying white America “a national health emergency.”
“As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue,” the president said.
The opioid crisis disproportionately impacts white Americans: in 2015, 82 percent of the people who died from opioid overdoses were white.
The largely white problem has garnered a lot of attention and money from Trump’s largely white administration, as well as resulted in a commission of all-white people dedicated to combating the crisis.
Boasting no racial diversity, the six-member commission is chaired by Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.). Three other white men, Gov. Charlie Baker (R-Mass.), Gov. Roy Cooper (D-N.C.) and former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, are also on the commission. The two women both also white are Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Bertha Madras, Ph.D., a professor and chairman of the Division of Neurochemistry at Harvard Medical School.
On Nov. 1 the group published a lengthy, detailed report with its recommendations, including federally funded initiatives to help addicts recover.
The opioid epidemic is eerily similar to the cocaine/crack outbreak that victimized the United States three decades ago but the response could not be more different. The stark contrast from then to now is twofold: approach and demographic.
Back in the 1980s the “war on drugs” became a household term, under then President Ronald Reagan’s firm, zero tolerance handling of the crisis that primarily affected the inner cities and lower income areas throughout the nation.
Fast forward 30 years, and we are facing another drug that threatens to similarly tear at the moral and social fabric of the American population. That may be where the similarities end, however.
The opioid crisis that faces us today infiltrates the suburbs instead of the inner cities, and rehabilitation and treatment has replaced arrests and jail time. Trump and his commission portray addicts as victims who need help and support not as criminals who should be placed in prison with maximum sentences, as was (and remains) the case with the “war on drugs.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III in May reversed an Obama-era policy and called for the maximum sentencing possible for crime suspects. Former President Barack Obama had largely tried to shorten sentences for nonviolent drug-related crimes, which disproportionately impact Black men.
The Center for American Progress reported in 2015:
People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Despite being only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population, 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are Black.
Latinos represent 16 percent of the overall population but 19 percent of those who are incarcerated.
Whites make up 64 percent of the overall population but account for only 39 percent of those who are incarcerated.
Have we merely learned from our past narcotic-based transgressions, or are the differences in the two just another tale in America’s book of black and white
The ratio between white (82 percent), Black (8 percent) and Hispanic (8 percent) deaths due to overdose have remained consistently disparate between 2005-2015. The percentages don’t tell the entire story. Although the percentages remained static over the past decade, the number of deaths has more than doubled from 14,910 in 2005 to 33,091 in 2015.
The toll this crisis is taking on white Americans is being combatted with proven medical treatment. The popular majority, in turn, deem the grasp that opioids have on whites as an epidemic that is claiming victims, rather than previous wars against drugs that created addicts.
This sentiment was reflected by Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson during a February 2017 speaking engagement at the University of Memphis. “White brothers and sisters have been medicalized in terms of their trauma and addiction. Black and brown people have been criminalized for their trauma and addiction,” said Dyson.
The National Health Institute has recently compared and warned that the increase in deaths among white Americans ranging from the ages of 25 to 30 during the span of 1999-2014 runs parallel to the onset of the AIDS disease in the nation.
The modern day paradigm has shifted from the morally corrupt to the middle to upper class. When asked about who his patients were in a USA Today article, reporting on the growing opioid issue in Tennessee, Dr. Daniel Sumrok described his patients seeking treatment for opioid addiction as “district attorneys and teachers and nurses and doctors. They’re not what you might think of as a TV bum; they’re people who have real lives, real jobs, real families, real values who found themselves opiate-dependent and need some help.”
Inpatient and outpatient drug rehabilitation centers provide the most common rehab for opioid users to detoxify and rehabilitate in a supportive environment. Many middle- and upper-class individuals have private health insurance that will cover the expenses. That access and privilege are yet additional differences between the socioeconomic inequalities of the war on drugs and today’s opioid problem.