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African Americans Faced Discrimination Even in Addiction Treatment

Posted on August 8, 2014 in Research & News

One of the most disturbing elements of our history is that of racial segregation and discrimination. While the outward expression of prejudice has decreased, there are still disproportionate levels of arrests, convictions and incarcerations for black Americans when it comes to drug laws.

The persistent problem with race and drug laws invites further analysis, and some interesting insight into the issue can be gained by looking at the history of addiction treatment for African Americans. All in all, the history paints a picture of disparity between how drug abusers of different races have been treated, and although blatant discrimination is a thing of the past, we still need a greater understanding of how to offer culturally sensitive services to help non-white Americans kick their drug addictions. 

The 19th Century: Slavery and Alcoholism

Originally, there was no real problem with addiction among blacks brought to America from Africa; their cultural relationship with alcohol wasn’t an abusive one. But things soon changed: Plantation owners began to actively encourage drinking among their slaves, a practice Frederick Douglass argued was designed to reduce rebellion by keeping the men and women docile. Douglass argued that alcohol was used to keep the slave in “a state of perpetual stupidity.”

Later, racial segregation in society meant that African Americans weren’t welcome in early rehabilitation facilities, creating an insurmountable barrier for those in need of help. However, as temperance took hold in the mid-19th century, the black Templars and other groups fought for abstinence from alcohol. Historians note, though, that little was actually accomplished when it came to helping members of the black community struggling with alcoholism.

Early 20th Century: Stirrings of Change in Addiction Treatment

Black American men who worked in more respectable professions such as law and medicine were accepted into rehabilitation centers in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, Nation of Islam members were required to be abstinent from drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Around the same time, Malcolm X asserted that white interests were well-served by addiction among blacks, echoing Douglass’ earlier sentiments.

Through the 1940s, there were problems with blacks being denied admittance to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but their inclusion was strongly supported by founders Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson. Smith and Wilson ruffled feathers when they began to bring African American alcoholics to meetings with them. But with their support, by 1945, the first black AA group was started.

Late 20th Century: Culturally Sensitive Treatment for Non-Whites

The civil rights movement brought about many changes for black Americans, and the 1960s marked the beginning of the modern age of addiction treatment for non-whites, too. Methadone clinics sprung up in many black communities, with the aim of helping heroin addicts and reducing crime. As part of these community services, many black counselors (who’d often personally been through recovery) were hired. In the 1970s, federal programs previously dedicated to helping whites were opened up to everyone.

From the late 1980s to today, the focus has been on offering culturally sensitive treatment to those in need, and much of this is focused on helping African Americans. In the early ’90s, it was suggested that AA was a particularly suitable organization for blacks struggling with addiction due to its focus on spirituality and feelings of powerlessness.

The work to determine the best methods for offering culturally sensitive services continues through research. Reducing discrimination in society and in treatment is essential, because it’s been indicated that even perceived racism or unfair treatment can lead people to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. Additionally, further research into specific issues faced by people of different cultures entering treatment helps us understand the types of support to offer. For instance, studies have suggested that more attention needs to be paid to childcare and relationship issues to help both black and white women stay in treatment.

Our world has come a long way from the days of plantation owners encouraging alcoholism among slaves. Addiction treatment is now available to everyone, and care is taken to offer culturally sensitive support to people of all backgrounds. There may still be a disparity in the number of prosecutions among whites and blacks, but as more people come around to the idea that those with the brain disease of addiction are in need of treatment rather than incarceration, we can only hope that the last bastion of addiction inequality is also condemned to the annals of our unpleasant history.

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