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Chicago Urban League Report: The Opioid Crisis in Chicago is Not Just a White Problem

For Immediate Release


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Chelsea Whittington
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Chicago Urban League Report: The Opioid Crisis in Chicago is Not Just a White Problem

Research and Policy Center Finds City’s Death Rate from Overdose Higher Among African Americans, Calls for Inclusive Approach to Public Health Solutions

Chicago (November 16, 2017) – While the nation’s opioid epidemic has been portrayed primarily as an issue for white suburbanites, African Americans in Chicago and other cities in the Midwest are also significantly affected by opioid use but receive little attention, according to a new report by the Chicago Urban League’s Research and Policy Center.

The report, titled “Whitewashed: The African American Opioid Crisis,” notes that the African American death rate from opioid overdose in 2015 was higher than the general population in five states, including four in the Midwest: Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. The African American death rate from opioid overdose was also higher in West Virginia and Washington, D.C.

In Chicago in 2016, the African American death rate involving fentanyl, heroin and other opioids was 56% higher than the white death rate (39.3% vs 25.1%). While Black people make up approximately 32% of the city’s population, they accounted for nearly half (48.5%) of all opioid deaths. Death rates were highest in Black communities on the South and West sides, with Austin suffering the highest death rate of all community areas.

The report also highlights that African Americans are disproportionately arrested for drugs, at nearly three times the rate of whites, while approaches to the opioid epidemic have focused more on treatment.

“The Chicago Urban League is committed to advocating for racial equity,” said President and CEO Shari Runner. “Politics and the far-reaching criminalization of drug use have devastated African American communities in Chicago and across the country for decades. Now that addressing the opioid epidemic as a public health issue has become a national priority, we must ensure that the approach applies equally to African Americans as to other communities and that new recourses are considered for those who have been disproportionately penalized by the so-called ‘War on Drugs.’”

Kathie Kane-Willis, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Chicago Urban League and one of the authors of the report, has been tracking the opioid crisis since 2004. She noted that the report is aimed at briefing policymakers and other advocacy organizations while raising awareness among the general public about an aspect of the opioid issue that has been too often overlooked.

“The media focus on the ‘new face’ of addiction has ignored the fact that Black communities are deeply and disproportionately suffering from the opioid crisis in the Midwest and across the country,” said Kane-Willis. “What we don’t need are more arrests and incarceration, but expanded resources to ensure that everyone has equitable access to lifesaving interventions like treatment and harm reduction services.”

Among the report’s other findings:

  • Treatment is a key approach to reducing opioid use and overdose risk, but current capacity cannot meet the demand in most major U.S. cities.
  • Chicago ranks lowest in the Midwest for medication-assisted treatment capacity and third worse among major cities.
  • Despite making up just 15% of Illinois’ population, African Americans account for nearly a quarter of opioid overdose deaths in the state.
  • In 2016, the overdose death rate for African Americans in Illinois more than doubled, climbing 132% and growing faster than any other racial group over a three-year period.
  • African Americans accounted for nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths in Chicago in 2016.

The Research and Policy Center issue brief draws from recently released data on the opioid issue from several sources, including the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, among others.

The issue brief calls for the adoption of three principles to better deal with the crisis:

  • Acknowledging the impact that the epidemic has wrought in African American communities;
  • Ensuring that African Americans are included in the development of public health policies and plans to address the issue; and
  • Tailoring treatment to meet the needs of the African American community.

“African Americans need to be part of the solution, and we need our community’s voices heard in putting in place public health solutions if we want to end this crisis,” said Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, Vice President and Executive Director of the Research and Policy Center.

The center’s report on the opioid crisis is the first in a new series of issue briefs on matters that impact Chicago’s African American communities. The full issue brief on opioid use is available here.

About the Chicago Urban League

Established in 1916, the Chicago Urban League works for economic, educational and social progress for African Americans and promotes strong sustainable communities through advocacy, collaboration and innovation. For more information, visit Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.


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