A circle of patients gathered for group therapy at a McKenzie, Tn., doctor’s office could well represent the face of the state’s opioid epidemic. They were in a small city in a rural county, fertile ground for prescription drug addiction. They were young or middle-aged and ranged from blue-collar workers to businesspeople. They said painkillers prescribed after accidents or injuries paved the way to their dependence on opioids. They also were all white, reports the USA Today Network-Tennessee. Of all deaths in 2015 from opioid and heroin overdoses in Tennessee and nationwide, about 90 percent of the people were white. Black people accounted for little more than 6 percent in Tennessee and 8 percent across the U.S., says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among African Americans critical of the drug war launched four decades ago by President Richard Nixon, the fact that the opioid epidemic is primarily striking whites helps explain why it is largely being called an epidemic and treated as a public health crisis, rather than a war. “Look at the inner city, it’s always been what we consider an epidemic,” said the Rev. Ralph White of Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church in Memphis. “If this had been the case in other areas, the community would have been crying out long ago. But now that it’s taking the lives of European Americans, we find that it’s at a time of crisis.” Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociology professor as well as minister and author, offered a similar view. “White brothers and sisters have been medicalized in terms of their trauma and addiction. Black and brown people have been criminalized for their trauma and addiction,” said Dyson.