I KNOW drug addiction.
I know addiction because even now, after 19 years clean from a drug habit that nearly destroyed me, I remember the hopelessness. I remember the lies it whispered in the quiet of my mind. I remember the havoc it wreaked between family and friends. I remember the seductive smile it wears when it returned to visit like a long-lost lover, swearing things will be different this time.
During the 1990s, when crack swept through poor black communities like a biblical plague, the response to addiction was mass incarceration. A generation later, as addiction has moved into white suburbs, America's response has turned from condemnation to compassion. Along the way, we learned that when it comes to addiction, white lives are the only ones that matter.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that in 2000, non-Hispanic black persons aged 45-64 had the highest rate for heroin overdoses. Back then, the police response was to zip up the body bags and keep it moving. But by 2013, when non-Hispanic white persons aged 18-44 died at the highest rate from heroin overdoses, the police had begun using drugs like Naloxone in order to save the lives of mostly white overdose victims.
Today, police in sleepy suburban towns in states such as Ohio and Massachusetts do much more than administer the drug that reverses the effects of overdoses. Police team with paramedics and social workers to steer heroin addicts to rehab rather than jail.
It's ironic, really, because now that the victims are their own children, the same white suburbanites who supported mass incarceration in the 1990s are now seeking a gentler war on drugs. And conservative politicians are blaming the burgeoning suburban drug problem on everyone but the addicts themselves.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage told a town hall in January that guys named "D-Money" and "Shifty" were responsible for bringing heroin into the state and impregnating young white girls. Donald Trump said this week that the drug problem in New Hampshire would disappear if we would just build a wall at the Mexican border.
It requires a special kind of bigotry to blame black people and Mexicans when whites decide to use drugs. But racial attitudes also drive the current compassion for white drug users. Too bad that empathy wasn't there when addiction was seen as a black thing.
If white America had been willing to treat addiction as a disease rather than a crime back in the 1990s, the thousands of non-violent drug offenders crowding our prisons would have gotten treatment rather than cells.
There are currently 86,000 drug offenders in federal prisons, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics. That's nearly half the prisoners in our entire federal prison system.
Those numbers are thanks largely to the sentencing guidelines put in place to deal with the drug scourge that played out in America's streets in the 1990s.
There were shorter sentences for the powder cocaine most often found in white neighborhoods, and longer sentences for the cheaper crack cocaine that flooded black communities. But even when blacks and whites faced similar charges, black males, in particular, received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.
It's a shame that the drug scourge is an emergency when those dying from overdoses are white. It's a shame that police can find compassion when the victims are affluent. Most of all, It's a shame that none of this was true when America thought addiction was black.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.