Racism and Recovery

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By Myisha Uni Cunningham

Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

As a person in long term recovery and as a black woman, I have noticed a few things that make you go “hmm” (eyebrow raised for emphasis). Let us start at the beginning. What is sanity? Sanity is the ability to think and behave in a normal and rational manner. What is insanity? It is defined as mentally ill, extreme foolishness, or irrationality. Can we agree the things we have done and said while in active addiction were insane? They were not normal. On the other hand, the systems we thought were put in place to help those in recovery and ensure justice and proper treatment of us were not sane.

I speak about recovery and racism. Here is what I mean.

Let’s start with the basics.

What is systemic racism?

“Systemic racism refers to the rules, practices and customs once rooted in law. These may have changed over time, resulting in a facade of “equality,” but the residual effects reverberate throughout entire societal systems,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University.

What is structural racism?

Structural racism refers to “A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with ‘whiteness’ and disadvantages associated with ‘color’ to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist,” according to the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change.

Practical Examples of Structural Racism

The black recovery community has had less substance use treatment made available and has largely been treated as criminals. For example, the war on drugs which was started in the 70’s and exploded in the 80’s was not meant to help those in need of recovery but to punish them. The war on drugs largely negatively impacted the black community the most. Offenses committed relating to crack cocaine were more severe than its drug counterparts. The war on drugs locked up more black people than any other race. If you don’t believe me, watch the 13th Amendment on Netflix.

We didn’t and mostly still don’t get the luxury of having access to help for our substance use disorders. When facing the court systems, we are quickly labeled an addict or some other derogatory term instead of seeing us as people in need of recovery. Instead of seeing the harm and destruction the crack cocaine epidemic did to our community, and saying let me help, we are labeled criminals.

Now I know you might be thinking, but all people seeking recovery are labeled these things due to stigma; and that is true, however there are treatment facilities that specialize in heroin and opioids which largely affected the white community, but there aren’t any specialized treatment for crack cocaine which largely affected the black community. This is what we mean by structural racism or even systemic racism.

Lastly, am I the only one who has noticed a lack of pigmentation in drug courts? Structural racism is present there also. Why are most drug court participants mostly white? If we choose to ignore these things and not ask the difficult questions, then how can we truly honor multiple pathways to recovery? If an entire race is not represented at the table of change then how can we truly be for multiple pathways to recovery while ignoring the black culture and needs? We as people in recovery need to speak out against such things and advocate for our black brothers and sisters who are not given the same rights to recovery as everyone else.

Here’s what you can do

  • Attend your town meetings and get involved with local change.
  • Pay attention to officials who have recovery agendas and advocate for others.
  • Get involved with your local recovery communities and do out-reach specific to the black community. Be intentional to create a strong black recovery community.
  • Put black people who are in recovery in positions of leadership and do not censor their voice. The lack of diversity present in recovery organizations is noticed by the black community. We don’t want tokenism; we want real change that we can see.

Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Let us be restored to sanity, through helping each other.

Pastor Myisha, affectionately known as Uni, is a published poet and activist. She loves writing, singing, herpetology, and playing chess with her husband. She is a life time learner and is currently working on her Master’s degree in Biblical and Theological Studies, with an emphasis on Leadership. She is in long term recovery and has a passion to help those bound in chains to addiction.