Conversations surrounding race are a reoccurring thing of consequence in most social justice advocacy circles, and have been for some time. Realistically, conversations of race, privilege, and xenophobia have likely been happening since the fear of punishment for such talk was squashed. Fellow recovery and social justice writers have broached the topic of “white privilege in recovery”, and the “ways in which racial discrimination continues to affect policy and treatment”; however, the discussion on the topic is quite narrow if you spend any length of time search academic journals and your favorite search engine.
This isn’t to say that many studies have not been completed on the impact racial, ethnic, and other cultural considerations have on issues such as behavioral health disorders. In exploring, most of what can be found on the topic is related to prevalence rates of substance use and risky use among minority populations in the United States. A few more searches, and it is quite easy to find estimated numbers of those individuals in long-term recovery, those estimated to have a substance use disorder or other behavioral health disorder – what I could not seem to find however was real meaningful discussions on why the disparity of recovery related resources for different populations exists in the first place.
With a quick switch of focus, to the criminal justice arena, and articles (research based and opinion-focused) came into view as quick as I could type. Philosophically, this presents a problem in my mind. If it is easy to find that African Americans are imprisoned at rates 6 times higher than their white counter-parts, should it not be as easy to find how those same individuals can find, treat, and support their recovery? Do we further propagate the stigma we have created, much of it from the war on drugs and its impacts on minority communities, when the only conversations that seem to be had are surrounding criminality and not rehabilitation?
I realize that the issues are two-sides to the same coin. Criminal justice reform is a necessary component of behavioral health and recovery reform, and to have one conversation without the other is problematic (as I mentioned in “The Intersection of Reform: Criminal Justice and Behavioral Health“). However, as a community that so often focuses on the language we use to empower or stigmatize, how could we miss this? Numerous accounts of the lack of positive black role models represented in media have been found to have a negative impact on the self-image and self-efficacy of youth within the same culture; it is postulated that if a lack of representation of someone similar in appearance and culture is not to be found, then self-esteem can become degraded and a sense of unworthiness can be fostered. Is it not probable that a similar effect is found when our discussions surrounding race and recovery focus solely on the criminal justice aspects?
As advocates, within the criminal justice and behavioral health communities, continue to heighten conversations surround social justice, parity, racial and gender equality, and general social equity, we must ensure that we begin to have true equitable conversations. Simply stating that there is a lack of minority representation in the recovery community because most find recovery in different avenues, such as church, is erroneous. Heightening the level of our discourse, to include dialogue around the lack of recovery supports, the differences in types of supports desired or needed, barriers to entry (including imprisonment), should be a goal we all strive for.
The time has passed where “recovery and race” can be talked about in respect to merely criminal justice issues. Those with privilege in the recovery community cannot continue to bring up the issues with a superlative tone of righteousness simply because it has been brought up. If we want to inspire true change, then our conversations of equality must be truly equitable. If they cannot be, then we are simply just a part of the problem unlikely to change anything at all.