America wasn't ready for crack cocaine.
When the drug started tearing through poor neighborhoods in the 1980s, politicians and law enforcement officials responded by escalating the war on drugs, demonizing addicts and molding terms like "crack baby" and "super predator" into the stuff of American nightmares.
Now there's a new "epidemic" sweeping the nation: opioid addiction. But according to critics and legal experts, the response this time has been remarkably different.
Ekow Yankah says the biggest factor is racism. In a video essay recorded Tuesday for PBS NewsHour, the law school professor at Yeshiva University in New York explained how America's newfound compassion for addicts stems from today's epidemic affecting mostly white victims.
"When addiction was a black problem, there was no wave of national compassion," Yankah said. "Instead, we were warned of 'super predators,' young, faceless black men wearing bandanas and sagging jeans."
"African-Americans were cast as pathological," he said. "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," he said. "Until then, the only answer lay in cordoning off the wreckage with militarized policing."
Yankah went on to describe how today's response to opioid abuse, in contrast, is marked by a growing movement to decriminalize and treat it for what it is: a public health issue.
Here is a transcript of an excerpt — titled, "There was no wave of compassion when addicts were hooked on crack" — via PBS:
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.
A number of developments in drug addiction treatment have rocked the United States in recent months. The Obama administration announced Tuesday a new initiative to fight opioid abuse, which included expanding the availability of anti-addiction pharmaceuticals.
He is not alone: Pharmacies in some states — including, most recently, Ohio — have made the "heroin antidote" naloxone available for purchase over the counter. This new approach is seen as a response to the demographic shift in addiction today. According to the New York Times, 90% of people who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.
"[The] growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country's approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease," wrote the Times of this new, whiter face of the drug epidemic.
The tenor of the conversation has certainly shifted since the 1980s. If only addiction's black victims had been treated with the same compassion as white victims today, who knows how much closer to a common sense drug policy we'd be.