Opioid addiction is being called the deadliest drug crisis in American history. But is it really? Or is it just getting an intense level of attention and sympathy because it’s a drug that predominantly impacts whites?
The constant stream of stories about lives – entire communities – broken by opioid addiction is heartbreaking. You can’t deny that. But it does make me think about the last time we faced a rising drug epidemic, in the 1980s. It’s troubling to recall that back then, particularly in minority communities, crack addiction was represented as a shameful, criminal issue. Looking at the ways in which the two crises have been packaged, there is an obvious bias.
This YouTube compilation of 1980s news footage illustrates my point. When we see minorities, most of the time they’re being arrested. Their drug use is shown as menacing. Compare that to this recent coverage (warning: it’s hard to watch). You’ll hear the word “heartbreaking” within the first minute. I believe that’s completely true, but what message does this disparity send to minorities who remember how accusatory the stories were when the subjects looked like them? What message does that send to whites?
Why the Difference?
When a problem like opioid addiction is treated like a health epidemic as opposed to a criminal menace, there’s more support for addressing it aggressively. It just begs the question: Why was there not a similar response of compassion and urgency when drug addiction grabbed hold of African-American communities? Why was the media-driven conversation so completely different when the population that was most directly impacted by it was different?
These questions present an opportunity to examine how society often has an all-hands-on-deck response when the afflicted population is mostly the white and more well-off. On the other hand, there’s vastly more shaming when a non-white community is afflicted. The blame shifts to the victims. Blacks and Native Americans, for example, have endured stereotypes that fault the individual or their entire subculture for their problems.
How to Respond More Equitably
I don’t think people set out to be unfair. We are influenced by an unconscious bias.
When we look at a certain population and its issues, we need to first examine the frame we’re using. How can we practice more mindfulness when we’re making decisions about how to respond to problems like drug use? Then, we need to go even deeper than that to examine our motivations. Sometimes we’re more motivated to move mountains to deal with issues affecting a specific population when that population looks a certain way.
A recent discussion in my Intentional Inclusionist Facebook group featured a program that strengthens connections between children and their incarcerated fathers. To my surprise, many respondents thought it better to keep the kids away from their dads. I wondered why people didn’t have more support for intact families. Is it only because mostly minority individuals are impacted? I encouraged a response that is less judgmental and more focused on the ultimate good for all involved.
That’s what we need to do when it comes to opioid addiction. That’s what should happen whenever the uglier side of life creeps up and calls for a societal response.
Why Should We Bother?
We must tackle these thorny issues if we’re committed to equity and dealing with inequality. Many times, those who can generate the most noise about an issue – get all those hands on the deck – are people of influence who then can help create change. That might be you.
The lack of equity is what divides our communities and our country and keeps race relations difficult. People notice when they’re not afforded the same level of attention or respect by those with the means and resources to help. Who wouldn’t question that? Sending some groups the signal that they don’t matter as much breeds a culture among people who start to believe it’s true. We’re perpetuating this cycle and don’t even realize it.
The Business Case
I’m reminded of what Marcus Shaw, senior director of business development of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, said at the Greenville Chamber of Commerce ACE Leadership Symposium. He said it’s hard for someone to show up at their best when they always have to question whether or not they belong, or will be accepted, or are valued. That means those of us in leadership roles need to know how biases impact our colleagues and employees and look for solutions.
As we’ve seen with the opioid issue, some people who fall into addiction are family members or coworkers. For them, it’s going to be hard to show up at their best if the conditions aren’t right for them to get the support they need. It’s even worse when it’s obvious that people who don’t look like them can get the help they need – substantive help that can turn lives around.
Previously, conviction for drug-related crimes locked people out of the job market. Today, companies are willing to consider looking past some criminal history as opioid addiction disproportionately affects their workforce. That’s wonderful news, but let’s not forget to be flexible and supportive when problems strike in minority communities. Ask why there is – or is not – enough passion or aggression generated to resolve an issue. A demoralized workforce is simply bad for business.
It’s not easy to think outside of the messages actively promoted in politics and the media. But, imagine the power of a new thought process to lead you to new conclusions. Even more, think about how that could impact the messages you receive and send and ultimately the lives of others.