For at least a century, heroin has been a problem drug for African Americans in Chicago. But blacks are being written out of an opioid narrative that focuses on white users in rural and suburban areas.
African Americans have been overlooked by the media and policymakers amid the opioid crisis in Illinois, says the Chicago Tribune, citing a report by the Chicago Urban League. The report, “Whitewashed: The African-American Opioid Epidemic,” says African Americans make up 15 percent of the Illinois population but account for 24 percent of opioid-related deaths. At the same time, the researchers said, African Americans are less likely to get help because Cook County, home to about two out of three black Illinoisans, has a relative scarcity of clinics providing buprenorphine, the medication many experts believe is among the most effective treatments. Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, a co-author of the report, said those grim facts have been missing from the public deliberation over heroin, which often focuses on white users in suburban and rural areas.
“On the one hand, the change in narrative has brought a broader awareness to the issue, but it has come at the expense of the comprehensive set of people who are affected by this,” she said. Illegal drugs have been a part of Chicago since the opium dens of the 19th century, and the heroin market in particular has long been robust. A 1925 Tribune report quoted a federal investigator as saying: “Chicago has been the source of supply for the entire country. All the big men in the dope industry — it’s nothing less — make their headquarters here.” While newspapers were crammed with lurid stories of “dope fiends” and “jive pushers” in crumbling city neighborhoods, the suburbs were seen as relatively free of the drug’s curse. But that started to change in the 1990s, when the arrival of heroin pure enough to snort spawned a new breed of user: young, affluent and white.