The gentrification of addiction: Now that whites are addicted, the language of shame has changed

For years, America embraced the narrative that addiction was primarily a black and brown problem, especially in cities such as Philadelphia.

But just as our poorest and blackest neighborhoods have been overrun and rebranded by richer and whiter residents, drug abuse is in the midst of a makeover.

I call it the gentrification of addiction.

The numbers tell us why. In 2016, nearly 80 percent of Americans who died from heroin and similar drugs were white. With that truth emblazoned across America’s landscape, the language has changed, the problem has been rebranded, and white people who were silent during the crack crisis have suddenly recognized addiction as a medical issue.

Tim Golden, a critical race theorist and professor of philosophy at Walla Walla University, has watched the change with mounting concern.

“As if African Americans in the mid- to late ’80s who were addicted to crack cocaine — as if that was not a medical issue,” he told me in a recent radio interview. “As if it was not a medical issue … when heroin was the drug of use in the black community. There was no talk of safe injection sites … There was no talk of that.

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