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How Systematic racism impacts addiction treatment and people of color



When it comes to addiction everyone is susceptible given the right situation or circumstances. And when it comes to treatment they have equal rights to being seen. Why then, is there disproportionate results in racial minorities? It is a question that many have asked.

Systematic racism seems to be the most likely candidate, and given the current climate of #blacklivesmatter that is hardly a stretch of the imagination. But what is systematic racism and who counts as a minority?

Systematic racism is sometimes called institutional racism. It is the practice of mistreatment or discrimination by an individual or group of individuals in society and its institutions as a whole. Examples of systematic racism can include, but aren’t limited to, unequal selection, bias, or any form of discrimination. It can be intentional or unintentional, whereby the ideologies of an unfair society seem the norm and thus become acceptable and continued without question.

By definition a minority is “the smaller number or part, especially a number or part representing less than half of the whole”. So, when it comes to people, this can mean either, the lowest number of people in a demographic, or those whose worth or opinions are put below the ruling group, or hegemony.

Studies by Melnick of the National Development & Research Institute of New York discusses the issue in Racial Disparities in Substance Abuse Treatment and the Ecological Fallacy (2018). Like much previous research he found that addiction was primarily a trait amongst White and Black people, but that there are “higher levels of engagement in White programs”. This was not because of disparity in the treatment centers or by racial bias on the part of the staff working at them according to a close study of the differentials.

Which begged the question of why the there was such a difference in the results.

Melnick found that Black people are underrepresented in programs with integrated service which have been more proven to have better results. Yet, how does this not appear in statistics of attendance? Melnick answers this too, starting that “African Americans are overrepresented in publicly funded drug treatment programs”. The numbers are there, but they are not being prioritized correctly.

Some might claim that this is a type of institutional racism. Particularly, when Melnick also found that there is a correlation between treatment success and levels of motivation. This does not reflect in the treatment of African Americans, who have been found to have higher levels of motivation in the way it should.

This is clearly then, a cause of systematic racism as there is no biological or psychological reason for this disparity. It’s happening on a large scale and it’s coming from the same people who are meant to protect us from it.

In the last few years there have been several statistics which support the existence of this kind of
racism. Such as:

  • Black people are more than twice as likely to die in police custody

  • 3% of the English population were black, but Black people accounted for 8% of deaths in custody in 2011, and 9% of people arrested were black

  • Between 1 January 2013 and 31 December 2019, US law enforcement killed 7,666 people and out of those Black Americans were more than 2.5 times

  • According to Bureau of Justice Statistics and US Census Bureau, between 2008 and 2018, the imprisonment rate of black people was around 6 times higher than that of white people

  • Black Americans say whites benefit at least a fair amount from advantages that black people do not have, 92% of the time

  • In 2015 Black students represented only 15% of total US student enrolment, but they made up 35% of students suspended

  • In New York City in 2018, 88% of police stops involved Black and Latinx people, while 10% involved white people. Out of all of these 70% were innocent

  • 15.8% of students reported experiencing race-based bullying or harassment at some point

  • Between 2013 and 2017 34% of Hispanic patients, 40% of Black patients, and 40% of Native American patients received worse quality medical care than Whites

  • In the USA Black people are twice as likely to be unemployed than white individuals, and when they are they earn an average of 25% less

  • In job applications, there were 50% more callbacks for people with traditional white names than those with traditionally Black names

  • Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women

  • Even though drug taking is about equal between Blacks and Whites, Black Americans are 6 times more likely to be arrested for it

If you didn’t believe it by now, you need to educate yourself and open your eyes.

There are several cultural factors at play too. For example, ethnic minority groups are more likely to seek help from family, friends or religious guides as a first priority, rather than healthcare
professionals, according to Doctor Omair Ahmed, a consultant psychiatrist from Priory Hospital in
Wellbourne. Additionally, some groups have different perceptions of addiction. These cultural
differences can result in, not only a reluctance to seek help, but a different definition of addiction.


Many consider this a stereotype, yet in her experience there are some communities where this has stood in the way of treatment. She cited Polish and Somalian citizens as seeing usage as acceptable for alcohol and khat retrospectively. Also, they find that “Heavy drinking in the Sikh community can be seen as a sign of hospitality”.

Arguably, these traits come from community and the need for it in minority worlds. Where else
might these peoples glean support? Clearly not from the institutions designed to support them.

Yet despite all of this, we end on some hope. Here are a few statistics which offer potential for a
turning point.


  • In 2017, 87% of black adults ages 25 and older had a high school diploma or equivalent qualification

  • Since 2000 the number of black immigrants in the U.S. has risen 71%

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