Back in the 1980s when crack cocaine captured the nation’s attention, black women morphed as the face of the drug. Their womanhood was stripped and they became derided as “crack hoes.” The story line rife with stereotypes asserted these women would sell the soul of their babies for one hit on the crack pipe. Just like Reagan-era welfare queens, they were shiftless and trifling.
We know that crack cocaine did not cause instant addiction as suggested at the time. We know a lot more about effects of the drug, much of which was stoked by fears a generation ago. The drug devastated black communities across the U.S. because the crack trade itself produced violence and entered urban areas at a time of disinvestment.
The public policy response created racial disparities in sentencing for cocaine and crack. Cocaine was seen as white and decadent while crack was the depraved black drug. The logic was that crack users and dealers morally failed and needed to be locked up longer because crack was categorized as worse.
I’ve considered the racialization of drugs now that heroin is in the public eye with a new face: young, white and suburban. Today, heroin is cheaper and no longer an end-of-the-line drug. It can be snorted and is sometimes more accessible than prescription drugs.
Heroin-related deaths are up in places like DuPage and Will counties. I hear thoughtful responses from law enforcement. I’ve seen task forces on heroin. Education and treatment are the focus. Compassion is guiding public policy.
None of that is wrong.
But it’s hard not to remember the black bodies locked up and lost because their lives didn’t have value in the crack era. African Americans were criminalized.
Illinois is now taking a different approach with heroin, emphasizing public health, which has been seen as a model for other states. The state Heroin Crisis Act, among other actions, provides insurance coverage to all medication to treat opioid use and amends drug court programs to keep users in treatment and out of jail. The Good Samaritan Law says if you witnesses a drug overdose and seek medical help, you’re immune from prosecution. The user is immune, too. Another law allows lay people to administer opioid reversal drugs.
For years Kathie Kane-Willis advocated better drug policies through her work at the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. And not because of the recent heroin epidemic. But she’s learned a key detail around advocacy.
“Race matters. It really does in terms of public policy solutions. I don’t think you could’ve changed any legislation if only focused on black folk,” said Kane-Willis, who is now director of policy and advocacy for the Chicago Urban League.
“And when people see whites suffering they are more likely to be emphatic. It’s harder to ‘otherize’ them. They are friends, neighbors, sisters, brothers, children in the white communities,” she said.
“Otherizing” drug users based on race goes back more than a century in this country — whether the “crazed Negro” on cocaine or opium labeled a Chinese habit for laborers on the railroad.
On one hand, Kane-Willis understands there’s better public policy around drugs because of whiteness. But she is frustrated that heroin is perceived to only affect whites. “Heroin highway” is the term for I-290, depicting suburbanites traveling to Chicago’s West Side from western suburbs for drugs.
“We see it as a neighborhood [West Side] where drugs are sold and not used. It completely dehumanizes the people who live there and the health consequences they are facing,” Kane-Willis said. Arrests are still high there for heroin possession, she said.
She said she had a hard time attracting media attention for a heroin study she did last year. She said reporters concentrate on white rural and suburban, ignoring: West side hospitalizations for opioids, including heroin, comprised nearly one out of four opioid hospitalizations for the entire state; the majority of those hospitalized for opioids on Chicago’s West Side were black. Meanwhile, declines in publicly funded treatment programs disproportionately affect blacks.
To frame the West Side as only a place where drugs are sold without acknowledging drug use or how the drug trade is fueled by rampant unemployment and deindustrialization totally whitewashes the issue of heroin.
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