"The opioid crisis is hitting white communities the hardest"
For decades black communities have faced job loss, school closings, and economic distress. However, these structural issues are rarely contextualized as causing public health problems. When white and rural populations saw steep overdose rates, economic distress and unemployment were immediately factors. This double standard is prevalent across media and further stigmatizes non-white drug users, who are often depicted as criminals instead of sick people who need treatment.
The Informed Narrative:
Contrary to popular belief, overdose death rates are not highest among whites of all ethnic groups. Native Americans have always been hit hardest by this crisis. In many jurisdictions (particularly in the Mid-West), black and Hispanic individuals have been at highest risk. More recently, national rates of overdose are rising far more rapidly among black and Hispanic individuals.
It is critical for journalists to tell the whole story. For decades, heroin has been endemic to numerous black neighborhoods across America. The political response had typically been militant enforcement. Yet when rural and white communities began to see overdose deaths from prescription painkillers, Big Pharma, and the economy was blamed.
This led to a more sympathetic rhetoric from politicians advocating for better treatment and health care. Yet drug arrests still occur at a rapid clip and harsh enforcement remains the norm.
The Tired Narrative:
Stories about the opioid overdose crisis often take place in states like Ohio and West Virginia. These areas are also homogeneously white and rural, synonymous with "working class."
When journalists report from the so-called "heartland" or"Middle-America," they tend to call it the "epicenter" of the opioid crisis. Journalists reporting from rural and overwhelmingly white regions of America also tend to connect addiction and overdoses to "the factories leaving" and the "mines shutting down."
Overdoses are the result of economic misfortune and the loss of opportunity, and are described as"deaths of despair" unique to rural, white communities.
In some instances, journalists cited theories that black people were spared from the overdose crisis because doctors prescribe them fewer opioids than their white counterparts.
Connect with Expert Sources:
Traci Gardner, Legal Action Center
Devin Reaves, Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition