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There was no wave of compassion when addicts were hooked on crack

March 29, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
Faced with a rising national wave of opioid addiction and its consequences, families, law enforcement and political leaders around the nation are linking arms to save souls. But 30 years ago, it was a different story. Ekow Yankah, a Cardozo School of Law professor, reflects on how race affects our national response to drug abuse.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a NewsHour essay.

As we reported earlier, President Obama today announced plans to expand drug treatment centers and increase the use of drugs that reverse the effect of opioids like heroin, OxyContin and Percocet.

Communities across the country are developing new approaches to this epidemic in an attempt to support addicts, helping them into treatment, instead of arrests.

New York’s Cardozo Law School Professor Ekow Yankah compares today’s approach to heroin users to the tough-on-crime response a few decades ago to those using crack cocaine.

EKOW YANKAH, Law Professor, Yeshiva University: That Kroger, the Midwestern grocery chain, has decided to make the heroin overdose drug naloxone available without a prescription is a sign of how ominous the current epidemic has grown.

Faced with a rising wave of addiction, misery, crime and death, our nation has linked arms to save souls. Senators and CEOs, Midwestern pharmacies and even tough-on-crime Republican presidential candidates now speak with moving compassion about the real people crippled by addiction.

It wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago, America was facing a similar wave of addiction, death and crime, and the response could not have been more different. Television brought us endless images of thin, black, ravaged bodies, always with desperate, dried lips. We learned the words crack baby.

Back then, when addiction was a black problem, there was no wave of national compassion. Instead, we were warned of super predators, young, faceless black men wearing bandannas and sagging jeans.

No matter how far from our lives crack was, we’re guilty by association. By the time I was in college in the early 1990s, my short dreadlocks meant older women would cross the street to avoid me.

African-Americans were cast as pathological. Their plight was evidence of 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.

Today, police chiefs facing heroin addiction are responding not by invoking war, but by trying to save lives and get people into rehab. Suddenly, crime is understood as a sign of underlying addiction, rather than a scourge to be eradicated.

One former narcotics officers said: “These are people. They have a purpose in life, and we can’t look at it any other way.”

But he couldn’t quite put his finger on just what had changed. His words reflect our collective self-denial. It is hard to describe how bittersweet many African-Americans feel witnessing this. Glad to be rid of a failed war on drugs? Yes, but also weary and embittered. When the faces of addiction had dark skin, the police didn’t see sons and daughters, sister and brothers. They saw brothas, young thugs to be locked up, not people with a purpose in life.

No one laments the violence the crack bomb set off more than African-Americans. But how we respond to the crimes accompanying addiction depends on how much we care about those affected. White heroin addicts get overdose treatment, rehabilitation and reincorporation. Black drug users got jail cells and just say no.

It would be perverse to want to go back, and this is not just about racial guilt. The hope is that we really can learn from our meanest moments. This stark moment gives us the opportunity to quit our dedication to ignoring racism.

Next time we or even you are faced with an indictment of institutionalized racism, maybe we can swallow the knee-jerk dismissal or the condescending finger-wagging, and imagine if you would accept such treatment of your own. We don’t have to wait until a problem has a white face to answer with humanity.

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