The vast health disparities and institutional discrimination that affect Black people is not a new phenomenon. Black people face high barriers to treatment for any illness. The COVID-19 crisis exposes what recovery advocates have known for decades: that Black people die at higher rates, and racism is responsible.
Systemic racism is a public health issue. According to STAT, a “mountain” of research catalogs the discrimination that Black people face in the healthcare system. They also experience more health problems, from stress, chronic pain, diabetes, and depression, to cancer and childbirth mortality rates. With COVID-19, the risk factors that affect Black people are deadly.
The COVID-19 pandemic kills Black Americans at about 2.4 times the rate of white Americans. As medical anthropologist Clarence Gravlee put it in Scientific American: “If Black people were dying at the same rate as white Americans, at least 13,000 mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and other loved ones would still be alive.”
We see the same patterns in substance use recovery. Black and Latinx people make up about 40 percent of admissions in publicly funded addiction treatment programs, but are less likely to complete those programs. Racial discrimination puts them at particular risk for poor outcomes. Some of the experiences that push Black people out of treatment are obvious, like blatant racism or rudeness. But they can be subtle too, like being the only Black person in an all-white treatment program, coping with identity-specific trauma, receiving care from a non-Black counselor or mentor, or being racially profiled as “tough” or “strong” and subsequently neglected in moments of struggle. White people do not have equivalent experiences; treatment programs are usually designed by white recovery specialists, and racial blindspots inadvertently exclude some of the people who need help most.
Addiction is often called “the great equalizer” because it humbles everyone, regardless of how wealthy, privileged, or powerful they are. However, addiction doesn’t erase the fact that our recovery journeys are very different. The obstacles someone faces, the opportunities they’re offered, and even the number of chances they’re given is influenced by the amount of privilege they have. Wealthier white people who are heterosexual, cisgender, and supported by their families have higher recovery rates not because they work harder or care more about their sobriety; they recover because they have access to life saving resources that others do not, in a system that is designed to serve their needs.
When I say “Black lives matter,” I mean that all Black lives matter. I mean that non-Black advocates need to build a longer table and commit to making recovery inclusive for Black people from every community. I truly believe that until we address the needs of the recovery community’s most underserved, marginalized people, our movement will be incomplete. We must dismantle policies, stigma, and beliefs that keep people sick—and that includes racism.
The shocking numbers of Black people lost to COVID-19 only highlights the tragic, avoidable deaths in our own recovery community. Let’s lift up Black recovery and listen to Black recovery advocates and leaders who have been out there, doing the work for decades. I’m committed to creating a healthier, equitable world, with room for everyone, no matter where they come from. Addiction may humble us, but recovery can lift us up. We owe it to our community to ensure everyone gets the help they need, in the way they need it, for as long as they want. When one of us is left behind, we are all held back.
If we’re going to recover, we need to ensure we all get there together.