Pubdate: Sun, 14 Feb 2016
Source: New Mexican, The (Santa Fe, NM)
Copyright: 2016 The Santa Fe New Mexican
Author: Ekow N. Yankah
Ekow N. Yankah wrote this for The New York Times.


When crack hit America in the mid1980s, for African-Americans, to 
borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates, civilization fell. Crack embodied 
instant and fatal addiction; we saw endless images of thin, ravaged 
bodies, always black, as though from a famined land. And always those 
desperate, cracked lips. Our hearts broke learning the words "crack baby."

But mostly, crack meant shocking violence, terrifying gangs and 
hollowed-out inner cities. For those living in crack-plagued areas, 
the devastation was all too real. Children learned which ways home 
were safe and which gang to join to avoid beatings, or worse.

Even for those of us African-Americans living at a relatively safe 
distance, there were soul-deadening costs. City centers, and by 
extension black neighborhoods, were seen in the national imagination 
as lawless landscapes. We were warned of a new wave of "super 
predators," young, faceless black men wearing bandannas and sagging 
jeans. The addicted, those who preyed on them and those caught by 
class, geography and especially race were swept together. At the 
edges of my 12-year-old mind was the ominous sense that no matter how 
far crack was from my actual life, I was somehow associated with the scourge.

Once again, African-Americans were cast as pathological, an 
indistinguishable and unsympathetic mass. 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. 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.

The dormant carrier of this ill-defined disease, harboring a mix of 
criminality and violence, was the young black male. By my high school 
years, there was no doubting the danger strangers saw radiating off 
me. When I was in college in the early 1990s, my short dreadlocks 
meant older women would cross the street to avoid me.

Thirty years later, America is again seeing an epidemic of drug 
addiction, particularly heroin. The surge is so great that for the 
first time in generations, mortality among young white adults has 
risen. But the national attitude toward drug addiction is utterly 
different. Even Republican presidential candidates are eschewing the 
perennial tough-on-drugs speeches and opening up about struggles 
within their own families.

More important, police chiefs in the cities most affected by heroin 
are responding not by invoking military metaphors, weapons and 
tactics but by ensuring that police officers save lives and get 
people into rehab. As one former narcotics officer described his 
change of heart on addiction, "These are people and they have a 
purpose in life, and we can't as law enforcement look at them any 
other way." In his inability to name the change that allowed this 
epiphany, his words also capture our cringe-worthy self-denial. 
Suddenly, police officers understand crime as a sign of underlying 
addiction requiring coordinated assistance, rather than a scourge to 
be eradicated.

It is hard to describe the bittersweet sting that many 
African-Americans feel witnessing this national embrace of addicts. 
It is heartening to see the eclipse of the generations-long failed 
war on drugs. But black Americans are also knowingly weary and 
embittered by the absence of such enlightened thinking when those in 
our own families were similarly wounded. When the face of addiction 
had dark skin, this nation's police did not see sons and daughters, 
sister and brothers. They saw "brothas," young thugs to be locked up, 
rather than "people with a purpose in life."

To be clear, no one laments the violence that the "crack bomb" set 
off in inner cities more than African-Americans. But while shootings, 
beatings and robberies cannot be tolerated anywhere, the heroin 
epidemic shows that how we respond to the crimes accompanying 
addiction depends on how much we care about the victims of crime and 
those in the grip of addiction. White heroin addicts get overdose 
treatment, rehabilitation and reincorporation, a system that will be 
there for them again and again and again. Black drug users got jail 
cells and "Just Say No."

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.

No sane community faced with addiction and crime would invite or 
acquiesce to brutal policing as their fate, and no moral community 
would impose it as a primary response. We do not have to wait until a 
problem has a white face to answer with humanity.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom