I had a friend who died with a needle in his arm.
He was a childhood friend and, when they found him along a street in my hometown in the early 1990s, we had long before chosen different paths separated by several states, a time zone and time itself.
Still, you don’t forget the buddies you laughed with, played with, fought with, grew up with, and, although my friend was black like me, I think about him as I read and watch the news about the opioid epidemic that is claiming the lives of so many white Americans.
Whites are dying across America from drug overdoses at rates nearly twice as large as blacks and nearly three times that of Hispanics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With blacks having the highest rates of mortality for nearly all of the leading causes of death in America, it is unusual that whites are leading all groups in this regard, and that the age group leading this is not younger, but adults ages 45 and over.
Unlike the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s through early 1990s, opioid drug users are not centered in the big cities, or among blacks and Hispanics. They are centered in rural areas and the suburbs among whites. And while the opioid use has increased among all groups, it is among whites where it is greatest.
In 2015, more than 15,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses from prescriptions. Most were white.
Why am I citing the race of these victims? Pain is pain. Is it not?
I remember the pain on my friend’s dad’s face as I sat on the front steps of his home listening to him talking about all he had tried to do for his only son. How it broke his heart. How he wasn’t supposed to die this way.
Pain is pain — but there are two levels of pain that surround drug use in America. First is the painful reason why whites are presently suffering the most from opioid addiction: the perception of pain.
A University of Virginia study on racial bias in pain assessment published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April 2016, found that many medical practitioners don’t view blacks in the same way as whites. As a result, blacks are “systematically undertreated for pain relative to white Americans.” So they don’t get prescribed the drug that can reduce their pain.
According to the study, some of this is attributed to the false views about biological traits of blacks, such as the notion that blacks have a higher threshold of pain than whites.
This was echoed in August 2016 in a study on racial and ethnic disparities in opioid prescriptions that appeared in PLOS ONE, a science journal. It found that blacks were less likely to receive pain prescriptions for back and abdominal pain upon discharge from emergency rooms than whites.
In a way, racial bias by many in the medical field, whether conscious or unconscious, may have spared blacks the pain that so many whites are feeling.
The second level of pain reflects on the value of life and what we are willing to accept among certain groups of people, relative to how much they resemble us.
In 2014, nearly 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids, according to the CDC. Each day, 1,000 Americans are treated at emergency departments.
That’s a lot of pain. And with it comes crime caused by those who need to supply their addiction.
Opioid use today is whites’ crack addiction and epidemic.
But unlike what was heard during the 1980s and 1990s about “arrest” and “incarceration” of those who used crack and other illicit drugs, the word heard today for opioid users is “treatment.”
Instead of a war on drugs with mass arrests and incarceration of whites, there is, “How can we help those unfortunate souls?”
This itself is a painful reminder of pain: whose pain matters — and whose doesn’t.
Frank Harris III is a professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He wrote this for the Hartford Courant. Readers may email him at [email protected]