What Stigma? White Privilege and Addiction

By Mark Goodson 05/15/17

After nine years of sober-soul-searching, it hit me: I have not suffered from the shameful stigma of being an addict because I am a white male.

A man in prison, resting his hands on the bars.

When I took my personal recovery to the public last year, I was surprised that the greatest trend in social media concerned the stigma of addiction — #StigmaFree or #EndtheStigma on Twitter. I knew of Sarah Fader's stigma-fighting advocacy for people living with mental illness, but I was surprised that stigma was the chief concern of so many in recovery from addiction.

If stigma is a deliberate shame imposed on a group, then I was the exception to that rule. My family supported my going to rehab for alcoholism and drug addiction. In fact, they organized it. My friends supported me. In fact, they checked my intentions when I tried to get out of going to an extended-care facility. My employer had my back. I aired the dirty laundry of my past when my blog began receiving traffic and my boss gave me a handshake and a pat on the back. I have returned to this notion of stigmatizing addiction again and again wondering, “where does the stigma arise for addicts?”

The answer came to me recently. In fact, it came to me when my article about the addict-as-criminal was published in The Fix. After nine years of sober-soul-searching, it hit me: I have not suffered from the shameful stigma of being an addict because I am a white male who had a cocaine problem and the resources to get treatment for it. If I were a black male with a crack problem, I would be better acquainted with stigma. If I were a black male addicted to crack in the 90s, Hillary Clinton may have referred to me as a “super predator,” a young man without conscience or ability to empathize. I may have had a police officer slam me to his squad car and place me in cuffs on Fox’s TV show Cops. So why was I, a white male with a cocaine problem, treated so differently?

Cocaine and crack: two illicit drugs derived from the coca plant. Same compounds, different form. Rock or powder. Understanding cocaine and crack as one and the same begs many questions of its treatment under law. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act proportioned the criminality of crack to cocaine at 100:1. Five grams of crack and 500 grams of cocaine resulted in the same mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Why make such a gross disparity between powder and rock?

The answer isn’t easy to face—until you face it and it becomes startlingly clear. Cocaine is expensive; crack is cheap. America keeps the poor in jail because filling our prisons has become a profitable venture. Bryan Stevenson summarizes it in his viral Ted Talk: “We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.”

I had to ask myself difficult questions in writing this article. Was it wealth or culpability that brought me mercy? Was it wealth or culpability that brought me to a treatment facility that understood the nature of addiction, instead of a prison cell that would have aggravated my addiction? Was it wealth or culpability in this country that identified me as an upstanding member of the recovery community, rather than a deviant criminal?

And while I was never arrested to face a judge and jury to find out what my sentence for cocaine possession would have been, I know the answer is wealth. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

If I were arrested, my family could have afforded a trial. I would have sat in front of a judge and jury. If you are like me, you were raised to believe that all citizens of this country are innocent until proven guilty, that every human being has the right to stand trial before he is labelled a criminal. In fact, 95% of inmates — two million of our world-record setting 2.2 million prisoners — never stood in front of a judge or jury as a result of plea-bargaining agreements. People plead guilty now because they are threatened with a harsher penalty later. Or, people plead guilty now because going to trial in this country is expensive, a fact currently popularized by the Khalif Browder story; Browder’s family couldn’t afford the $10,000 bail set for him when he was accused of stealing a backpack, and later, despite the charges being dropped, Browder committed suicide as a result of the trauma he underwent in prison.

If you are looking for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God, stop watching courtroom dramas. Watch the documentary 13th and learn that this staggering information is not some hazard of circumstance, but a systematic attack rooted in the worst aspects of American history, targeting the poorest and most oppressed people of our nation. Watch it and learn that our country has transformed the criminal clause in Lincoln’s abolitionist amendment into our modern era’s prison-industrial or mass-incarceration complex.

If you watch it you will learn the reason I wrote this article the day my first piece for The Fix was published, calling for criminal justice reform. Reforming the system has gotten us into this mess in the first place. Changing the name of slavery to convict-leasing, or Jim Crow, or mass incarceration doesn’t change things. Reforming the system allows the system to adapt. So, what is the answer?

As a writer, I love to read. I like the joke David Foster Wallace tells in his novel Infinite Jest. In the scene on page 445, an old-timer in AA is speaking to some newcomers in recovery. The old-timer says, “This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?' and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away.” The joke applies to the newcomers in recovery who, for the first time in their lives, are about to change the way they look at the world. It can also apply to Americans who still think they live in the land of the free. It’s high time we put the pH strip in the water we swim in because it stinks.

As recipient of a quality education and effective treatment — as a white male, clean and sober for more than nine years — I can sit here and write that the notion of white privilege is not some relic of pre-Civil Rights Era America, nor should it ever be transformed into a nostalgic or wistful slogan of the America that once was.

While I may have been born on third base, I was raised better than to claim I hit a triple.

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Mark Goodson is a sober father, writer, teacher, and poet. Check out his blog, The Miracle of The Mundane or follow him on Twitter.