Pubdate: Mon, 09 Nov 2015
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2015 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Jerry Large


The Country Could Have Saved the Lives of a Lot of White People If 
We'd Adopted a Better Approach to Drug Abuse by People With Darker Skin.

While the country was focused on locking up black and brown people 
for drug-related offenses, an epidemic of drug use was building 
elsewhere, and ignoring it for years hasn't been a kindness to the 
people affected.

The Seattle Times recently ran a national story headlined, "Drug war 
shifts as heroin use soars among whites." A few days later that was 
followed by an article on a study that found death rates have been 
climbing for poorly educated, middle-aged white people.

Those two stories are related. The study found that the main reason 
why middle-aged white people with the least education were dying in 
larger numbers while death rates continue to decline for other 
demographic groups is an increase in suicides and deaths caused by 
drug and alcohol abuse.

Officials across the country are asking why this is happening and 
looking for ways to help people recover from addiction or avoid it 
altogether, which is a dramatic shift from the response to the 
problem when most people's idea of a drug user was a black person in 
a big city.

Let me quote from a story that made note of the difference:

"When the nation's long-running war against drugs was defined by the 
crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, 
the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison 
sentences. But today's heroin crisis is different. While heroin use 
has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among 
whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first 
time in the last decade were white."

That Oct. 30 story in The New York Times included a comment from the 
father of an addicted woman, who said he used to talk about junkies 
near his office, but he doesn't use that term now that his daughter 
is affected. Public officials are offering understanding and calling 
for supportive programs.

I want people to be aware of the difference in response because 
understanding what that difference means might save someone pain in 
the future. Across a whole range of social problems, Americans have a 
tendency to reserve the most humane and effective solutions until 
middle-class white people are affected. That may seem to have 
short-term benefits, but in the long term the hurt often spreads.

By not seeing people as people, the country missed signs of deep 
problems that could affect anyone given the same circumstances.

What researchers found underlying suicides and drug abuse are 
disappearing work, growing pessimism about the financial future, and 
poor health that often included physical pain. Sounds like conditions 
many black Americans have been dealing with for a very long time.

The black unemployment rate tends to be twice the white rate in good 
times or bad, and during the financial collapse in 2008, the 
unemployment rate for white Americans rose to the rate black people 
had experienced for years (the black rate went even higher).

White people in middle age whose education didn't get past high 
school were acutely affected, but the middle class as a whole suffered.

It was easier for white people to go to a doctor and get a legal 
prescription drug for their physical pain, and for too many that 
became a salve for psychological and emotional pain as well. When 
officials saw what was happening and began to crack down on 
free-flowing prescriptions, patients turned to the streets for heroin 
or even meth.

Middle-class white families are getting the attention of officials 
and moving them to answer the needs of their relatives with 
compassion rather than punishment. That's what's happening now.

Some change was already beginning, at first spurred by the cost of 
incarceration, and more recently by acceptance of bias in the 
criminal-justice system. Michelle Alexander's book, "The New Jim 
Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," has had a 
huge impact. But now that we see larger numbers of white Americans 
hurt by social and economic circumstances, problem-solving will accelerate.

We'd be further along that path if more people had been able to see 
the humanity of the Americans who first suffered from the ills that 
lead to drug abuse.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom