By Barney Blakeney
For the past few years I’ve had mixed emotions about the response our society is making in the wake of the opioid epidemic. I’d be less than honest if I said I don’t have some consternation about America’s sense of urgency in responding to the consequences of opioid addiction in recent years than it has been to the consequences of heroin and cocaine addiction. America’s response to opioid addiction, which affects more whites than Blacks, has been swift and concentrated. It’s response to heroin and cocaine addiction which affects more Blacks has been almost negligible for generations! That’s a subject I’ve avoided for some time, but last weekend I experienced a situation that finally gives me the willingness to express some thoughts on the subject.
I needed to use a restroom as I was out and about in North Charleston and stopped at a fast food restaurant to use its bathroom. A young Black guy walked into the bathroom ahead of me asking someone inside if the person was alright. Apparently someone had locked himself in the private stall and hadn’t come out or responded to the young man’s persistent calls. The first guy kept calling to the person inside the locked stall who didn’t answer.
I could hear the person inside the stall snorting or snoring as if asleep. The first guy seemed concerned that the sleeper was not responding and already had called the restaurant’s manager who moments later came in saying she was calling to police. At that point the first guy lay down on his belly and crawled under the stall door to get inside. I told him to unlock the door and I’d help him. When the first guy opened the door I saw a young white guy inside passed out on the floor with a syringe on top of the toilet. Apparently he had passed out after injecting himself with something.
As me and the first guy left the restaurant I asked the guy if I could buy him a coke or beer or something. Neatly dressed and well-spoken, that guy had gotten on his belly to crawl beneath that stall door on a nasty public bathroom floor out of concern for a stranger. He refused my offer saying he didn’t want to see anybody die. I wouldn’t have crawled on that floor!
When it comes to addictions that result in so much loss, including loss of life, we shouldn’t want to see anybody die. But because of our own prejudices America, like me, for various reasons refuses to go down to help fellow human beings.
According to one source, in the U.S. opioid addiction and overdoses affect mostly Whites and the working class. Beginning in the late 1990s and continuing throughout the next two decades, the increase in opioid overdose deaths has been dramatic, and opioids are now responsible for 49,000 of the 72,000 drug overdose deaths overall in the US in 2017.
But for years I grew up with stories of heroin addicts and overdoses. My friends who spent summers in New York City often came home telling stories of heroin junkies who would lean almost to the ground while in a ‘nod’, but never fell! As kids, we laughed at the stories.
As a teenager in high school I read Claude Brown’s “Manchild In The Promise Land”, a gut-wrenching book about a young boy growing up in Harlem, New York during the 1940 and 1950s. His story was about coming of age in a community of everyday people caught in the vice grip of life in the ghetto amid heroin addiction, crime and violence. Fascinated by the world of music, I later learned about talented musicians like Billie Holliday and Charlie “Bird’ Parker whose heroin addictions cut short their unparalleled talented lives. As recently as the 1980s, the Iran-Contra Affair cast shadows over America’s role in African American cocaine addiction. Cocaine is the new addictive commodity. America makes money off Black folks’ addictions by selling it and locking ‘em up for selling it! Black folks get the double-whammy!
So for a lot of years, I’ve had these conflicted feelings about America’s challenge with its young whites and the opioid epidemic. Throughout my life I’ve watched America turn a blind eye toward the addiction epidemic that has devastated Black folks over many generations. But now that white kids are falling victim to that madness America’s social, medical and criminal justice resources are focused to eliminating the threat.
Yes I’m outraged that as usual my people are expendable, even utilized to advantage, in the travesties that are American addiction epidemics when America’s whites are saved. But that young guy last weekend is helping to get past my outrage. Asking nothing for himself he got down in filth to help another human being simply saying, “I don’t want to see anybody die.”
This article originally appeared in the Charleston Chronicle.