White Addicts Matter
Last Friday, the New York Times ran an article documenting a shift in American attitudes toward drug addiction:
“When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.”
Unlike the urban African-American drug addicts of decades past, today’s white drug addicts evoke “care and empathy,” the Times said.
Right on cue – the very same day the Times article ran – the Huffington Post picked up a video clip of New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie speaking passionately and personally about drug addiction during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire – a state not marked by urban concentrations of African-Americans – has of late suffered from something of an epidemic of heroin addiction, and the problem got plenty of attention before Christie’s talk on Friday.
Christie spoke of his mother’s nicotine addiction. I’ve seen enough nicotine addiction in my life to know that it is a powerful addiction, very hard to kick, and that the urge remains strong pretty much throughout the life of an ex-smoker. Still, the example seemed a little odd – Christie said his mother began smoking at the age of 16 and was diagnosed with lung cancer at 71. Smoking no doubt impaired her health and functioning for the half-century leading up to her diagnosis, but she still lived a productive life.
Christie’s second example was closer to the mark. He told a story about a hugely successful law school friend who, in his early 40s, became addicted to a prescription painkiller, Percocet. Christie assessed his friend’s success by his good looks, the good looks of his wife and three daughters, his education, his income, his career, his house, and his physical fitness.
All of that success was lost to Percocet, and after ten years of addiction, Christie’s friend died alone in a hotel room next to empty bottles of pills and vodka. There but for the grace of God, Christie said, went he.
The human species evolved to be compassionate. In the course of normal psychological development, our capacity for empathy fully forms by the age of 20. But sometimes we stubbornly resist compassion. And sometimes after long resistance, our empathy turns on as if someone flipped a switch.
Ronald Reagan’s AIDS policy turned on a dime after his friend, Rock Hudson, died from the disease. Many a public figure, from Dick Cheney to Rob Portman, came to favor same-sex marriage only after a close family member came out.
The human species evolved to be compassionate, but we also evolved to be tribal. We empathize much more readily with people we regard as being similar to ourselves; thus our tribalism impedes our compassion. When heroin addiction was perceived as a problem of urban African-Americans, the response of our white-normative political culture was to blame the addict for “bad choices” and to throw the addict in jail.
But now we see good people, our people, becoming heroin addicts, and our empathy switches on like a light bulb.
It’s hard to regard it as a bad thing that Dick Cheney favors same-sex marriage, or that Ronald Reagan did finally come around to regard the AIDS epidemic as worthy of federal response. It’s hard to argue that Chris Christie’s advocacy for treatment instead of incarceration for addicts is a bad thing.
Still, the duality of our capacity for compassion is discouraging. Humans evolved to be both tribal and compassionate, and those two traits can be at odds. But humans also evolved to have reason – unique among the species, we are capable of thinking about our own thinking, of critiquing our thinking, and of changing it. Maybe it’s idealistic to hope that the electoral process would be one of those places where reason would be at a premium.
It remains to be seen whether our new-found compassion for our drug addicts will be generalized to those other drug addicts. If so, then this is an important moment in our socio-political history. If so, we can only mourn the unnecessary loss of so many drug addicts who went before this moment. We can only mourn our own need to lose a close friend to drug addiction in order to see the addict as a victim in need of help instead of a criminal in need of punishment.