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The American color of sympathy

It wasn’t hard to find the gravesite of the woman who was almost my sister-in-law. It was roughly a 10-minute drive from my childhood home, past the closed, dilapidated high school I graduated from in 1991—when it was still segregated, nearly four decades after Brown v. Board of Education—past the decaying Georgia-Pacific paper mill that once provided several hundred well-paying jobs, including for my family, past a small, free clinic that was established in recent years, and down a dusty dirt road that left my Ford Taurus in need of an immediate cleaning.

It was Mother’s Day. My wife and two kids, my sister and my nephew and niece had just finished eating takeout from a small strip-mall Chinese restaurant. We unloaded from the cars and were led through a chain-link fence into the cemetery by the niece and nephew, both of them still in grade school. We were visiting their mother—my brother’s former girlfriend—who was murdered 10 years earlier in a drive-by shooting, becoming an accidental victim in drug-fueled violence that has roots reaching back to the 1990s crack epidemic. My niece and nephew barely escaped becoming accidental victims, too, as they were toddlers sleeping in the same apartment where their mother was killed. The shooting made bullet holes on the walls just above where they slept on bunk beds. The death of my would-be sister-in-law was one of countless others like it—the homicide rate for black men doubled from 1984 to 1989, and bystanders like her were common—and her death went largely unremarked on, like most of those others.

In that moment in the cemetery on Mother’s Day, I couldn’t help but think of a New York Times Magazine story published in early May about children of the opioid epidemic—a some 9,000-word feature about an increase in the number of babies born with the opioid-withdrawal condition neonatal abstinence syndrome. The writer, Jennifer Egan, lingered on the addicted mothers’ more likeable qualities: one’s “air of apologetic sweetness,” another’s “mellow, almost purring” voice, their dream jobs and college loans. But it was the cover photo that grabbed me most, a white child dressed in angelic white tulle, his wide-eyed, open face in contrast with that of his mother next to him: turned away and covered by her hair, an attempt to shield herself from the camera lens and the shame of addiction.

I cannot remember a single story about the children in my family, or kids like them, that used that kind of compassionate tone in the 1980s or 1990s, despite the far-reaching effects the crack epidemic had on black families like mine.

Today, the white face of the opioid epidemic has garnered a sympathetic response throughout the country. During the 2016 election, candidates tripped over themselves to be seen as the most sympathetic candidate toward heroin addicts and their families. Candidate Donald Trump, now known for his failure to muster appropriate levels of sympathy—like when he tossed out paper towels at a post-hurricane appearance in Puerto Rico or forgot the name of a fallen service member during a condolence call, according to the man’s widow—had no such problems when it came to the subject of heroin addiction. “You just relax, OK?” Trump told a man at an Iowa rally in 2015 who had lost a son to an overdose. “What we have to do is we have to make sure that they don’t get hooked, because it’s a tough thing. And I know what you went through.”

Even hardened prosecutors like former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are sympathetic when it comes to opioid addiction. “Great-looking guy, well-educated, great career, plenty of money, beautiful, loving wife, beautiful children, great house,” Christie said of a friend at a New Hampshire town hall on opioids in 2015, in a moment that later went viral on YouTube. That friend was also “a drug addict, and he couldn’t get help and he’s dead. It can happen to anyone.”

The nature of heroin addiction—many users start with doctor-prescribed pills after routine surgeries or accidents—reinforces this idea that runs through the political rhetoric: that there is something random and unstoppable about it. That users are victims of this unique drug rather than criminals, and treatment and sympathy are more appropriate than punishment. “My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need,” Trump said at his State of the Union address this year.

Some drug users do not get that kind of sympathy from Trump. When it comes to drugs in general and drug dealers in particular, the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies are far harsher. Trump called the “crime and drugs and gangs” in American streets “American carnage” in his inaugural address. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned against a draft sentencing reform bill in February, which would lessen prison time for nonviolent drug offenders, saying it would reduce sentences for a “highly dangerous cohort of criminals.”

So, while Trump doesn’t go light on drug users and dealers in general, one glaring exception is the drug whose users are primarily white. As Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told the Atlantic in 2015: “When the perception of the user population is primarily people of color, then the response is to demonize and punish. When it’s white, then we search for answers.”

And journalists, politicians and social scientists have spent several years now searching for those answers. In a 2017 study, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton plumbed the question of why less-educated whites were dying at higher rates. Opioids were part of the reason behind what the pair called these increasing “deaths of despair,” but buried in the study is that black people, especially less-educated black people, are still dying at much higher rates. There was no term like “death of despair” when crack overdoses were on the rise.

Contrast all of this coverage with the coverage of crack addicts in the 1980s and 1990s. The photos from that era weren’t of innocent children being harmed; it was of U.S. marshals pointing pistols in the faces of drug addicts at crack houses, of black men in handcuffs, of crack smokers passed out on sidewalks. There were few childhood photos and shots of crying mothers.

And to be sure, there are differences in the kind of crimes associated with the heroin epidemic today and the crack epidemic decades ago. While crack is thought to have fueled the rise in crime in cities in the 1980s and 1990s, today, heroin is not associated with a similar rise in violence. There’s a reason for that: Crack-affected neighborhoods formed by poverty, high incarceration rates and federal housing discrimination are neighborhoods already prone to crime—tinderboxes for more violent crime when widespread drug addiction is added to the mix. But no matter; the crime that inevitably followed only led to police crackdowns and skyrocketing black incarceration rates. Attempts to understand addiction, sympathize and treat the root causes would have to wait until the addicts were mostly white.

And whether or not you think my brothers, who committed violent crimes, are worthy of media and politicians’ sympathy, it’s difficult to argue that their kids did anything to deserve the effects of drug abuse they were born into. It’s much like those babies featured in the New York Times Magazine article: caught up in the legacy of drug abuse left behind by their parents.

The effects of drug abuse ripple throughout my family. The shooters who killed my almost sister-in-law were aiming for my youngest brother, Jordan McDaniel, who had gotten caught up in the devastating game of street drugs. Frankly, I still don’t know why that became his path. I know my mother and brothers and sisters tried countless interventions with Jordan, to redirect him from his earliest years of life. We emphasized the importance of education and right-thinking and hard work. We took him out of town, away from what we believed were bad influences. It didn’t matter. Jordan is now serving a 24-year sentence in federal prison for a variety of crimes linked to his life in the illegal drug trade, activity that cost my niece and nephew their mother.

Another niece and nephew barely got to know their dad, my oldest brother, whom we call Moochie, before he began serving a life sentence for a 1982 murder. Moochie was addicted to painkillers and a variety of illicit drugs, including PCP, when he killed a man. The niece has severe development problems; the nephew followed the path his father blazed to prison and is now serving a 25-year sentence for a manslaughter conviction.

Black families like mine weren’t given appropriate treatment, or treatment of any kind. We were told to fend for ourselves, then treated like monsters who had caused our own problems and deserved to be locked away forever. We committed acts that often follow untreated drug addiction and unacknowledged trauma from a lifetime spent trying to overcome the obstacles of race and poverty and segregation.

My nieces and nephews aren’t the first black people to find themselves on the wrong side of uneven, unfair media narratives and racial disparities. My parents and aunts and uncles didn’t have great careers and plenty of money and weren’t well-educated, like Christie’s friend, because they lived in a society that made those things difficult to attain for people who looked like them. Our health problems might not have started with doctor-prescribed painkillers, but they started with systemic neglect and contempt—as real as health problems get—and elicited disgust, not sympathy. That’s why we were standing in a cemetery on Mother’s Day: not because there’s something wrong with us, but because there’s long been something wrong with the way society has been comfortable treating us.

 

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Analysis, Opinions

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