How Does Reporters’ Language Reinforce Racism?
When you think of crack cocaine, who do you think of? What about when you think of the opioid crisis? The violent poor young African American mother living on the streets of New York City or the white lower-middle-class mom trying her best in suburbia America? Racism in America manifests in different approaches to the crack epidemic and the opioid crisis. Crack cocaine is treated a criminal offense, while the opioid crisis is treated as a public health crisis. This disparity is reflected in two New York Times stories on the two drug crisis, one written in 1988 and the other written in 2017. A case study of these two articles will demonstrate the racial disparities in the structural portrayal of two mothers: the black mother is villainized, while the white mother is victimized.
There is a vast disparity in public response to the two drug crises. In the case of the crack epidemic and the opioid crisis, the media displayed crack as an instigator of violent crime that needed criminalizing, while they portrayed opioids as a health crisis that needed treating. When at their core, they are both widely abused drugs in America. Crack cocaine began as an experiment where people were looking for a more intense and quicker high than powder cocaine. The response to the crack epidemic was quick and intense. Congress enacted strict laws against crack cocaine that criminalize the drug, the dealers, and the users. The opioid epidemic is an ongoing issue that began with the over-prescription of opioids by doctors (Friedman). It’s so prevalent that opioid drug overdoses are now the leading cause of American deaths under the age of 50 (Szalai). These painkillers are being used to treat issues like chronic pain, terminal illnesses, and short-term surgery (Friedman). While some blame doctors for over prescribing narcotics to patients after surgery (Szalai). Others argue that nurses and doctors need to be educated on the dangers of opioids, yet never think to bring up new laws, jail time, or criminalization of any sort (Friedman). The governmental response to the opioid crisis is vastly different from the government’s response to the crack crisis; showing how the US government responded to the opioid crisis as a national health issue while the crack crisis was thought of as a violent, criminal issue.
Structural Racism is the way racism is built into society without being acknowledged. Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer, explains structural racism using theorist Iris Marion Young’s “birdcage metaphor” (Alexander 184). Think of the bird as a person of color in America and the wires of the cage are laws. One wire isn’t seen as limiting the bird. One wire makes sense, but the network of connected wires “arranged in a specific way, and connected to one another, serve to enclose the bird and ensure that it cannot escape” (Alexander 184). The way this becomes structural racism is when the people watching the bird from the outside don’t see the issue with the wires. The onlookers view the wires as completely avoidable because they do not see that the wires are in fact trapping the bird (Alexander 184). Structural racism is when racism is not seen as racism by the majority because it is already engrained into society.
Racism extends into the structure of the language reporters use. When “crack epidemic” or “crack crisis” is googled, the immediate link that pulls up is a Wikipedia page for the “crack epidemic.” Yet, when you google “opioid epidemic” the Wikipedia link pulls up to the right of the screen saying, “the opioid epidemic or opioid crisis” (Google). Epidemic is a word associated with widespread, and often incurable at the time, disease and death. While the word epidemic is always considered serious, epidemic also inspires distance and blame. It is someone’s own fault they get sick, they could have avoided the situation. On the other hand, crisis inspires a call to action. A crisis is unavoidable; a natural disaster can’t be stopped no matter what. Crisis means something has gone wrong and needs to be fixed; while and epidemic means stay in your house until the Center for Disease Control creates a vaccine. The use of epidemic vs crisis is a subtle but effective way reporters play into structural racism. The crack epidemic was a disease that poisoned people. The people took it seriously, but actively kept a distance from the source. They expected the American government to take care of the problem swiftly, so everything could return to normal. While people affected by opioids are victims and therefore need the help of the people. It is the small language shift that adds wires to the birdcage described by Alexander.
The African American mother is portrayed as a villain through the language of “Addiction’s Hidden Toll: Poor Families in Turmoil.” In the article crack is blamed for what is causing “crime rates to soar and drug bazaars to infect street corners … [and crack] [tears] apart what remains of the fragile ghetto family” (Kerr). The article speaks to how women are more like to become addicted to crack than men, and because women are the heads of these households, it is their fault that the “ghetto family” is falling apart (Kerr). This opening language that defines the lens of blame in which the reader will read the article. Kerr paints a brutal image of neglectful and irresponsible women who happen to be mothers because of their own poor choices. He talks about children being born with addictions and STDs because of the “rampant sexual activity of crack-addicted mothers” (Kerr). This description shocks the reader because unwed mothers having multiple affairs is taboo to talk about. The article interviews one mother in particular, Teresa Johnson, who became addicted to crack after her parents died. She was an aide in a nursing home and “better off than most single mothers” (Kerr). Kerr writes from the perspective of Johnson’s daughter to inspire pathos in painting Johnson’s daughter as the victim of Johnson’s addiction. With any victim, there must be a villain; btu the villain is nto the addiction but the addicted mother herself. Kerr writes that “Johnson’s daughter started noticing that her life was changing … her dresses were no longer crisply ironed … [and her] savings account disappeared” (Kerr). Johnson even left her daughter with her sister for two months and turned her apartment into a crack house. Johnson was sentenced to drug treatment after jail, but Kerr doesn’t feel the need to explain what happened after because depicting her as an irresponsible mother is what helped of his article. Yet, he may not realize that his depiction of crack addicted mothers like Teresa Johnson impacts the way his readers will see inner-city African American mothers in the future.
The white mother is portrayed as a victim through the language chosen by Lisa Foderaro, in “Offering a Brutal Look at the Opioid Epidemic.” Foderaro, uses strong pathos to create sympathy for Jessie Yasenchok, a victim of the opioid crisis. Foderaro uses the word “victim” early in the article to describe Yasenchok helping solidify the image of her being the one who is being hurt (Foderaro). A local coroner wanted to explain the dangers of opioids, so he gave a presentation with Jessie Yasenchok’s mother. The mother gave a “sobbing  account” of when she went to pick up her daughter for her court appearance, but instead she walked in to find her daughter dead (Foderaro). Yasenchok, a mother of two, died of an overdose from fentanyl patches that she had stolen from her own mother (Foderaro). Yasenchok having to be picked up by her own mother gives a childish image of Yasenchok, as if she cannot manage her own life without help. Yasenchok stole pain patches from her own mother, who needs them for “chronic pain;” this selfish act also appears immature (Foderaro). Like crack addicted mothers, Yasenchok appears irresponsible, yet the article breezes over these facts as if they are unimportant. Yasenchok is instead described a “promising student” who was a “good kid and had great grades” (Foderaro). The mother blames Yasenchok’s addiction on her husband, the necessary villain. Surprisingly, Johnson is the one who battles her addiction, whereas Yasenchok cannot survive hers. Foderaro’s reporting isn’t racist or incorrect, it is purely sympathetic to Yasenchok, and therefore Yasenchok’s image isn’t tarnished like Teresa Johnson’s.
The media has an uncanny ability to twist public perception of an issue. These two articles were not written with the purpose of reporting on how one race was superior to another one. No one would read these articles and be outraged about biased reporting, they would just have underlying expectations of people based on the articles. The language of the articles has an underlying foundation of racial stereotypes that reinforce the structural racism we as a society already expect. It is not the reporting that is the issue, but the inability of the public to acknowledge it.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010. Print.
Foderaro, Lisa W. “Offering a Brutal Look At the Opioid Epidemic: [Metropolitan Desk].” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast); New York, N.Y., 20 June 2017, p. A.25.
Friedman, Richard A. “Doctors Enabling Addiction: [Op-Ed].” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast); New York, N.Y., 8 Nov. 2015, p. SR.4.
Kerr, Peter. “Addiction’s Hidden Toll: Poor Families in Turmoil: [THE CRACK PLAGUE – First of Three Articles. ].” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast); New York, N.Y., 23 June 1988, p. A.1.
Szalai, Jennifer. “A Ground-Level Look At the Opioid Epidemic: [Review].”New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast); New York, N.Y., 26 July 2018, p. C.1.