Thu, Nov 09, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Travels in white America — a land of anxiety, division and pockets of pain

Gary Younge traveled from Maine to Mississippi to find out why some white Americans feel that whiteness is all they have left and why the far right is finding fertile ground

By Gary Younge  /  The Guardian

“You hear privilege, and you think ‘money and opportunity,’ and they don’t have it. I understand how it works, but I don’t think most people do. So when Trump says stuff, they can understand what he’s saying and he speaks to them in a way other people don’t. And then you’ve got people calling them stupid and deplorable. Well, how long do you think you can call people stupid and deplorable before they get mad?” she said.

Increasingly, for many white Americans, their racial privilege resides not in positive benefits of work and security but in the sole fact that it could be worse — they could be black or Latino. Their whiteness is all they have left.

In few areas is this clearer than the opioid epidemic, which is disproportionately affecting white America. Wander down Oxford Street, home to one of the main shelters in Portland, Maine, and you can see people, distraught, disoriented and desperate, openly struggling with their addiction long into the night.

“In the past, we might go months and not have an overdose call,” paramedic Andrea Calvo said as we drove around Portland. “And we had a day, not too long ago, when I think we did 14 overdoses; the majority of people, certainly in this area in this state, probably in the country, are somehow affected by addiction issues.”

A member of her family struggles with addiction. She constantly worried that one day she would be called to assist her.

Andrew Kieszulas was a 22-year-old sports star from a middle-class family when his doctor first prescribed opioids for a back injury. With his thick neck perched on top of mountainous shoulders, he had the air of an all-American boy from an all-American family, but behind the facade, things had started to go wrong.

“Very quickly, the prescription drugs were removed and I was left with an emotional addiction, a mental addiction and a very physical addiction to the opiates— and, very quickly, I transitioned over to street drugs,” he said.

Kieszulas has had to struggle hard to remain sober these last five years. His achievements are his own, but he would be the first to tell you that being white helped.

When black America was blighted by the crack epidemic, it was understood as a crisis of culture and treated as a problem of crime. African Americans were locked up in unprecedented numbers, leaving more Americans in prison than had been incarcerated in the Soviet gulags at its height and more African Americans in prison than had been enslaved in 1850.

“If you are white and middle class, it’s much easier to remove the negative consequences of a use disorder,” Kieszulas said. “You’re less likely to go to jail, less likely to have any kind of negative criminal consequence. I myself don’t have a criminal record. I did some very interesting things to support my habit and to find relief. And transitioning out of that without a criminal record at all? I think it speaks for itself.”

Thanks to contamination through needle sharing, the opioid epidemic is also turning into an HIV crisis, which is particularly acute in rural white areas. Of the most vulnerable 5 percent of counties at risk of an HIV outbreak, almost all voted for Trump.

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