Liberal racism. That’s what I see in the ridiculous push for safe injection sites.
It is the kind of racism that is grounded in unconscious bias and cloaked in a veneer of sympathy. It is a racism that says, “I’ve read the books and attended the lectures, and while I understand that your viewpoint is based on hard-won experience, I know what’s best for you and your community. Now get out of the way and let me do it.”
That’s the attitude people of color have encountered when questioning white liberals who favor the Kenney administration’s proposal to allow private entities to run safe injections sites in Philadelphia. The administration says the sites, which would be equipped with clean needles and staffed with medical personnel, would save lives by helping addicts to avoid overdoses.
Why the sudden concern for addicts? It’s simple. The majority of overdose victims are white.
Facing that uncomfortable fact is key to having an honest conversation about safe injection sites. And even if our white counterparts gloss over that truth, people of color must shout our objections. That’s why I’ll be participating in a town hall meeting Wednesday night at the West Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church. Because if black folks don’t speak up, we will again be victimized by a racist policy dressed up to look like help.
To be sure, Philadelphia must do something to address the rash of overdose deaths driven by heroin, fentanyl, and other opioid drugs. Given that an estimated 1,200 people died from overdoses last year in Philadelphia, we have little choice. But we can’t ignore the numbers that have made this a priority, because those numbers reveal the racism that drives this discussion.
In Philadelphia, about 62 percent of the 800 overdose victims who died between January and September 2017 were white. The group with the highest opioid death rate in Philadelphia was white males, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. And nationally, whites composed nearly 80 percent of opioid overdose deaths in 2016.
Before these numbers became apparent, no one talked about supporting glorified drug houses for addicts. Rather, the recovery community was supporting tried and true methods that actually helped people to stop using drugs.
I know this because I have been through an addiction. And during the crack crisis, when I was doing my best to slowly kill myself one hit at a time, I learned some things about drug use. First, you can’t get an addict to stop using unless he wants to. Second, you can’t enable an addict to use, because if you do, he’ll never stop. And third, I learned that government at every level would do everything it could to punish addiction in my community — even though officials knew addiction was a disease.
The punitive tactics of the government during the crack era led to an unprecedented period of mass incarceration. It led to a racially driven sort of demonization. And in Philadelphia, it led to a ruthless spate of confiscation.
The District Attorney’s Office took hundreds of properties from people who were accused of running drug houses. Black and brown men caught dealing drugs — some of whom were addicts themselves — were locked away, leaving our communities with a decreased male presence. Female addicts were labeled. Children of addiction were abandoned. Communities were destroyed. Yet none of the resources we now see for addicts were made available to people of color.
In my view, the obliteration of black communities must be addressed before anyone utters another word about safe injection sites. And even after that past harm is addressed, the black and brown experience with addiction must become a foundational part of the discussion.
We appreciate that white liberals and their allies of color have read books and reviewed studies on the use of safe injection sites in other countries. But those who support helping addicts to shoot drugs must also respect the experiential knowledge that black folks have gained from living it.
We have seen what happens when we try to control addicts by helping them to use drugs. It does not work, no matter what you call it. And through the tears we’ve cried for those who’ve died in the throes of addiction, and in the violence of drug-infested streets, we’ve learned that loss can sometimes be the catalyst for change.
Like all of us, I want to see addicts get the help they need. But after 21 years clean from an addiction that almost killed me, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that keeping someone in active addiction is not harm reduction. It is enabling them to kill themselves more slowly.
That’s wrong. Not only because it defies all reason, but also because it is driven by the racist notion that white lives are worth saving while black lives are not.
Solomon Jones will participate in a town hall on Safe Injection Sites on Wednesday, June 13, at 6:30 p.m. at West Philadelphia Seventh Day Adventist Church, 4527 Haverford Ave.