The White Gaze is Killing Us: The Whitewashing of the Opioid Crisis

Comparing Narratives

By analyzing the response of the media and lawmakers to the crack epidemic through the white gaze, one can contextually understand why the response to the Opioid Crisis is starkly different in comparison.

1982, Detroit, Michigan, USA — A member of Detroit’s Gang Squad, an undercover group of vigilantes focused on juvenile gangs, frisks a black man on a busy city sidewalk, while a father and his children look on. — Image by © David Turnley/Corbis

Since the narrative surrounding the crack epidemic, which disenfranchised and destroyed black and brown communities, was that of gangs, thugs, fiends, and “super-predators” — the response by media and lawmakers was the criminalization of drug users and mass incarceration through the War on Drugs.

Clearly, one can see how the white gaze has disillusioned the American public in regards to the reality of the crack epidemic and the solutions for it, but what about the opioid epidemic? 

Since the narrative surrounding the opioid epidemic is that of rural and suburban white communities being taken advantage of by

Viral photo of 4-year-old boy sitting in a car behind his parents who overdosed on opioids and were later revived with an overdose antidote. (East Liverpool Ohio Police Department 2016)

corrupt pharmaceutical companies, the response by media and lawmakers is to take legal action against pharmaceutical companies. Not only this, but U.S. President Donald Trump has declared the opioid crisis a public health  emergency—going as far to support funding for drug rehabilitation programs and research for opioid vaccinations.


However, the president’s agenda mostly focuses on stricter drug laws, calling for harsher minimum mandatory sentencing laws and even the death penalty for drug dealers. (Zezima 4) This means incarceration rates for marginalized groups will continue to rise, resulting in the strengthening of America’s inherently racist carceral state and the further disenfranchisement of the African-American and Latinx communities.  

Despite matters of accurate representation, why does the opioid crisis appear to be overwhelmingly white? To answer this, one must evaluate the white gaze’s impact on the healthcare of Black Americans. Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative, conducted research comparing the attitudes of doctors when prescribing narcotic painkillers to black and white patients. He found that doctors were more cautious when prescribing these drugs to black patients than white patients, citing subconscious racist rhetoric as its source. (King 4)

 “It would seem that if the patient is black, the doctor is more concerned about the patient becoming addicted, or maybe they’re more concerned about the patient selling their pills, or maybe they are less concerned about pain in that population.”  -Dr. Andrew L. Kolodny

It seems as if racist stereotypes have worked in favor of the black community by acting as a protective barrier against the over-prescribing of opioids that has devastated rural and suburban white communities. However, data shows that urban African-American communities are dying at a faster rate from opioid overdoses than their white counterparts in rural and suburban areas. (Penaloza 2) The Office of the Medical Examiner in Washington, D.C. reported that overall opioid overdose deaths among black men between the ages of 40 and 69 increased by a startling 245% in only the last three years (January 2014- February 2017). (Smith and Leak 3These findings seem to contradict with the narrative that the opioid crisis is primarily affecting rural and suburban white communities.

Questioning the State

Subsequently, one must question why the opioid crisis has only recently become a major issue in mainstream politics if it has been a public health issue for decades, considering opiums (heroin, prescription opiates, fentanyl, etc.) have been destroying urban, black and brown

African American U.S. troops addicted to heroin sit together at an Army amnesty center in Long Binh, Vietnam in August 1971. In the 1960s and 1970s, heroin use surged, prompted in part by Vietnam War soldiers who were exposed to it while fighting overseas. (Keilman)

communities since the Chicago opium dens of the 19th century. (Keilman 2) 

Considering the data evidenced previously, to argue that America’s media and lawmakers only cared about opioid overdoses now because of the recent increase in prescription opioid deaths among, predominantly white, rural and suburban communities is far from a stretch. After conducting research to determine the validity of this posited argument, I found it to be true.

“Differences in [prescription opioid pain reliever] overdose mortality by race/ethnicity match the pattern for medical and non-medical use of [prescription opioid pain relievers], with the lowest rates for medical and non-medical use among Asians and blacks and the highest rates among American Indians/Alaska Natives and non-Hispanic whites.” (Paulozzi, et al. 18)

A study conducted by the CDC determined that there was a 200% increase in prescription opioid overdoses from 2000 to 2014. (Rudd, et al. 4) From 1999 to 2008, non-hispanic whites and American Indians/Alaska Natives overdosed from natural and semi-synthetic opiates over 3 times more than black and latinx individuals. (Paulozzi, et al. 3)

As unfortunate as these statistics are, they provide insight into the bias present in America’s approach to substance abuse epidemics among different socioeconomic and ethnic groups. With an understanding of these biases and how they have influenced proposed solutions in the past, one can know the outcomes of proposed solutions to the opioid crisis.

Next: Synthesis & Conclusion