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When words are casually used in daily nomenclature, they lose their impact and meaning.  Systemic racism or racism alone have been “buzz” words in social media, mainstream media, and everyday conversations.  So, what exactly is systemic racism, and how is it related to addiction?

Systemic Racism

Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre ([ACLRC], n.d.) indicated that systemic racism is where the policies and practices of institutions result in excluding or promoting designated groups.  This type of racism removes individual intent.  Systemic racism manifests in either institutional racism or structural racism (ACLRC, n.d.).  Institutional racism stems from racial discrimination carried out by individuals at the order of others who are prejudiced (ACLRC, n.d.).  Structural racism is inequalities that are system-wide within a society that excludes significant numbers of specific groups from participating in social institutions (ACLRC, n.d.).

Types of Systemic Racism

  1. Transatlantic Slave Trade. Millions of people were kidnapped from Africa during the 16th to 19th centuries, nearly 350 years (Solly, 2020).  Of those who survived the trip, almost 4 million were enslaved in the U. S. (Solly, 2020).  Amistad is an excellent depiction of the plight of the slave trade.
  2. Jim Crow Laws. Legalized racial segregation meant to deny voting rights, jobs, education, among other opportunities.  Jim Crow lasted nearly 100 years until the Civil Rights era.
  3. Poll Tax. When African Americans were able to vote, mandatory poll taxes prevented them from exercising their rights.
  4. African Americans have fought in every single war in the U. S.  The American Revolution had several Black hero soldiers.  The Civil War treated African American soldiers more harshly than Whites if they were captured.  African Americans fought during World War I to gain respect.  World War II  saw the rise of the Black fighter pilot, the group known as the Tuskegee Airmen.  The commonality of all these wars was that Blacks were second class citizens.  The Tuskegee Airmen were subjugated based on the Jim Crow Laws, separate but equal.
  5. The Tuskegee Experiment. Not to be confused with the Tuskegee Airmen.  No, this experiment was conducted to study the life cycle of syphilis.  Participants were not given informed consent of the research, nor were they given penicillin, the gold standard at the time.  This experiment has caused mistrust in the medical field among Blacks.
  6. Drug Laws. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was directed toward Mexicans. The Harrison Act of 1914 targeted the Chinese and opium dens by taxing opiates and coca products.  The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 directly affected African Americans because of the crack propaganda.  Drug laws are based on social climate, not on science.

Race and Addiction

Laws like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 were in response to the war on drugs.  Unfortunately, the impact was egregiously biased toward Hispanics and Blacks, who make up most of the prison populations.  One might say that prison is nothing more than modern-day slavery, especially for those who indeed are innocent.  Is the prevalence of drug use much higher among African Americans and Latinos?  No, it is not higher. Law enforcement focuses on those communities more than suburban, White neighborhoods.

What are the Consequences for Blacks?

Dresner and Schrank (2020) asserted that “The vilification of black people and the narrative of urban decay offers shallow justification for many of the incidents with police.”  The shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were senseless tragedies of two teens who “looked like drug dealers/users.”  Both were unarmed and pleaded with police to not shoot.   These precious lives helped contribute to the beginning of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  Because of the stereotyped undertones of drug use among inner-city and urban neighborhoods of color, the consensus is that Whites are sick, and Blacks are criminals.  Addiction does not discriminate, nor does it care about the color of skin.  African Americans suffering from addiction need treatment, not jail.  

What’s the Problem?

Finances could be a huge barrier to treatment.  The mid and upper-level treatment centers typically do not have many Black clients or clinical and administrative staff.  The lower end agencies are more likely to have African American clients on their census.  Another challenge could be cultural: “Family problems stay within the family.  We don’t air our dirty laundry to others.”  For some, the only options are jail or church.  Countless stories of African Americans who enter all Black treatment facilities reported the subpar conditions.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the triple evils of poverty, racism, ad militarism that perpetuate violence and are barriers to the community.

How to Help

Speak up!  Debunking false beliefs and stereotypes might seem like a small step; it is enormous.  Destigmatizing addiction treatment and mental health can help achieve racial equality in healthcare and the criminal justice system.  Align with an agency that advocates for Black rights like the Drug Policy Alliance, for one.  The Drug Policy Alliance aims to

  1. Decriminalize drug possession.
  2. Eliminate policies that are disproportionate in arrests.
  3. End policies that exclude convicts from rights like voting.
  4. Better access to wraparound services.
  5. Increasing diversion programs.

Learning and researching are not enough.  Creating change requires action, and here are 100 ways you can help.  


What is an ally?  A friend, helper, supporter, associate, collaborator, you get the idea.  History, Rebellion, and Reconciliation is part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture video archive examining race, justice, and community activism.  Einstein used his status to speak out against the racism against Blacks that he witnessed in America.  He said, “That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”  One need not be famous to act on behalf of another.  Read this or this to learn more about becoming an ally.

The Ho tai Way – Recovery for Women is dedicated to promoting dignity and respect to our current and potential clients.  We strive to eradicate and debunk the myths and stereotypes associated with substance abuse.  Addiction is a disease of the brain, not a moral deficit.

If you or someone you love needs help with addiction, please call our admissions department to get you the support you deserve.  Call (714) 581-3974.