Drug policies and enforcement are innately racialized and extremely discriminatory to African-American drug users. Hansen and Netherland pose that these sociological ideologies of what constitutes whiteness in society play a key role in the racial disparity between white and black drug users. Race plays a significant role in why public opinion and public policy towards drug addictions has changed. Sociological ideals of what defines blackness and whiteness in society have existed since the era of slavery. Since blacks and minorities were placed in the category of “others” they were innately marginalized or targeted. When one population is considered to be “others” they become easy targets for prejudice and discriminatory treatment. West argues that this prejudice and punitive treatment leads to nihilism among black people.
According to Convington, “the minority drug user is then represented as more dangerous, deviant, and prone to abuse drugs than is his middle-class counterpart because he is reacting to social pressures that only affect urban ghetto or underclass communities”(Convington, 1997, p. 117). This characterization of the minority user as deviant and dangerous says a lot of about sociological perceptions of blackness because it centers on themes of low expectations for black people, correlating with their devaluation and degradation. Vilification of blackness in society further leads to discrimination because the separation between blackness and whiteness in society essentially becomes a separation between good and evil. It is imperative to fully comprehend the sociological perception of whiteness within a society and its relation to drug addiction. Today, many opioid users, represent a changing face of addiction.
White drug users are easily sympathized within society because of the misconception of what defines whiteness. Collins argues that when understanding less punitive policies regarding drug use of white users, it is imperative to recognize the high expectations set for white people. Hansen and Netherland assert that this changing face of addiction, ‘has carved out less punitive, clinical realm for Whites where their drug use is treated as a biomedical disease’ (Netherland & Hansen, 2017). It is imperative to know their drug use is treated like a disease because the whiteness is not characterized by deviant, aggressive behaviors.
The lack thereof of these negative characterizations lead to a society which is greatly sympathetic to the white drug user. Convington asserts that to minority/black drug users, drug use among white people is characterized as “normative, functional or even as an essentially harmless part of adolescent development”(Convington, 1997, p. 117). Drug use among white adolescent drug users is seen as normative because they not facing ‘aggregate social conditions’ which pose a “greater risk for seeking to escape from drugs” (Convington, 1997, p. 17). This characterization of the differences between white and minority, specifically, black users face in terms of social conditions are key when understanding the role of whiteness in society. This highlights white privilege because it focuses on the lack of disadvantage among white people which places them at a lesser risk for drug use. Due to their privilege, many white people follow colorblind racism.
According to Netherland and Hansen, colorblind racism which centers upon the idea that race does not matter within society. However, the sociological perceptions of whiteness play a major role in the racialization of drug policy, drug laws, and enforcement. It is imperative to understand the history of the racialization of drugs, specifically powdered and crack cocaine. Although crack and powdered cocaine were chemically identical, the treatment and the drug policies regarding the two drugs were extremely different. Zedeck and Provine focus on the treatment of black, crack users in comparison to white, powdered cocaine users. These drugs became essentially racialized, assigning one to the white, majority, and assigning another to the black, minority. During the 1980s crack epidemic, “Congress passed a series of laws that aimed to counter the widespread use of crack cocaine with tougher sentencing guidelines” (Peterson & Armour, 2018).
The vilification of crack cocaine innately criminalized minority drug users rather than making them victims of drug addiction. Provine argues that this focus on criminalized drug use has always placed focus on marginalized groups. This close association between blackness and crack cocaine represents the societal association of blackness with criminality. Provine further asserts that this need to racialize drug use stems from the desire to further isolate black people from the rest of society. Empathy and the role of the media plays a significant role in drug policies and enforcement. Today, the opioid epidemic gravely impacts society. Collins asserts that media attempts to erase black people as victims of a grave disease. This erasure of black people from the opioid addiction is primarily used to invoke empathy among society. President Trump and policymakers have a current approach to opioid addiction is characterized by compassion and rehabilitation rather than demonizing and harsher sentencing imposed during the crack epidemic.
Armour and Peterson pose that this “current approach to combating opioids demonstrates a broader shift to societal attitudes to drugs” (Peterson & Armour, 2018). Collins, Armour, and Peterson, pose that current policies and approach to opioid addiction may show a compassion and empathy to opioid users; however, show that white drug users are easier for policymakers to empathize with than black drug users. Armour and Peterson illustrate this finding through statistics, research, and data, that the opioid crisis or epidemic is invoking empathy from society because many lawmakers and politicians feel it hits closer to home. Empathy is when “when [one] understands the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them” (“What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy?,” n.d.). Often times many people are not able to be empathetic towards certain people and situations simply because they cannot relate to these groups either culturally, racially, or socially.
Convington poses that the differentiation of the black drug user is necessary when understanding the lack of empathy society and policymakers have for this type of drug user. The isolation of black people in society, innately makes it hard for white people in political power to empathize with them. Netherland and Hansen reiterate, “white opioid images have helped to carve out a separate space for white opioid use in the popular American imagination, one that leads to racially stratified therapeutic intervention and works to further insulate white communities from black and brown drug threat” (Netherland & Hansen, 2017). Although many politicians visit impoverished, low-income, drug-ridden communities, their interaction with these communities are limited and detached. According to Netherland, Hansen and Armour, the portrayal of the white drug user in the media is done in a way to invokes empathy among policymakers and people in political power because it focuses on wasted privilege and potential.