Ekow Yankah, a law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, finds this treatment-first rhetoric a little bittersweet. He says that while it's heartening to see local law enforcement and elected officials talking about addicts as victims instead of moral degenerates, it's not like any of it is based on new information.
"We spent two generations locking up young black men for any reason we could, in large part covered by the War on Drugs. And then we have an explosion of addiction in the white community, and suddenly everybody starts reading all the science that's been around for two decades," says Yankah.
Yankah is one of many voices calling out the clear racial divide between the hyper-criminalization and moral outcry over crack addiction and the leniency and compassion shown toward opioid addiction. When pregnant black mothers became addicted to crack, it sparked a national panic over "crack babies." Today, a baby is born addicted to opioids every 19 minutes, but where is the vilification of "opioid moms"?
Much was made during the 2016 presidential campaign about the economic toll of globalization on rural, mostly white communities, and how the ensuing joblessness and hopelessness helped to fuel the opioid crisis. Maia Szalavitz, a New York-based journalist who has written extensively about addiction, wonders why the same connections weren't drawn between economic depression and drug use in black communities.
"The reason we saw crack hit black neighborhoods the way it did in the '80s and '90s, was because they had high unemployment levels and were hit hard by deindustrialization," says Szalavitz, "all the same things we're seeing in rural white communities now."
Yankah says that plenty of sociologists and economists were making those connections back in the 1980s, but their voices and data were drowned out by a media narrative that preferred to place the blame for the crack epidemic on negligent black mothers and absent black fathers.
"If you ask me, do I think if you changed the race of the victims, will our sympathies change?" Yankah says. "I have to say yes."