America Is an Ideal That Never Materialized for George Floyd

How toxicology reports of fentanyl will be seen when stigma is defeated.

Posted Jun 09, 2020

I immediately resonated with Bono when he said, “America is an idea that hasn’t happened yet.” America stems from the fundamental ideal that all people are endowed with the same inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Support for that ideal is shaky at times, but it continues to be the glue that holds our diverse nation together.

The vast majority of Americans have recently been shocked into awareness of a core flaw in our national character by George Floyd’s murder at the knee of a uniformed white policeman. Racial prejudice was embedded in our original Constitution until amendments after the bloody civil war. But unconscious bias and internalized white supremacy still infect white Americans. White is simply the unquestioned standard of normal for white people. 

George Floyd’s toxicology report showing fentanyl and evidence of recent amphetamine in his blood quickly led to disparaging and dismissive chatter online. There are whispers that he would not have died except for fentanyl’s presence. One officer involved in Floyd’s killing suggested that toxic delirium caused by stimulants might have endangered the arresting police. The basis of this fear was what? Only that Floyd was a black man? Such thinking is blatant evidence of prejudging the man, better known as prejudice.  

The conversation about Floyd’s drug use has fortunately been eclipsed by outrage at police violence against him and so many others. Most people get it – they understand drug use is irrelevant. Murder matters. Drug use does not excuse what police did to George Floyd.

Martin Luther King fixed in our minds that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The goal of justice, reason, and empathy for those reckless with, or hostage to, alcohol and other drugs also lies at the end of a long moral arc – ideas that haven’t happened yet in America. Too many people make drug abuse a moral issue instead of understanding that our attitude toward drug users is the real moral issue.

What will America’s attitude toward alcohol and drug use look like when the arc of the moral universe nears justice? And how will police behavior toward drug users differ from today?

First, addiction will be treated as a true disease. Cancer and AIDS had to travel the same arc, from shame and moral approbation to medical concerns. The person afflicted by these diseases is treated with care, respect, and scientific rigor. America will eventually learn to see the person hidden behind the disease of addiction. Every addict will be seen as a sister, a brother, mother, father, or child – a family member who is temporarily too ill to be fully him or herself. We will understand that pride at not falling into addiction is the inverse of believing the addict should feel deep shame for their condition. Disease causes dis-ease and suffering. Justice for addicts will mean we see their suffering and not be afraid to empathize with it.

Second, we will no longer see drug abuse as a police matter. It will be a public safety matter and addicts will be seen as legitimate members of the public. We will do what we can to protect their safety. This will frequently mean guiding them toward professional assessment and treatment while assuring quality treatment is universally and quickly available. We will willingly fund research to better understand and treat addiction. 

We will stop feeling superior because of our good fortune. This is especially true for those who have used drugs or alcohol just as recklessly as the addict but were lucky enough not to be cursed by the genes, family upbringing or current circumstances that contribute to addiction without reference to an individual’s basic character or dreams.    

When police need to interrupt an addict’s criminal activity, they will understand they are dealing with someone who is suffering, not someone who is bad. If jail or imprisonment is required, it will involve treatment of the addiction throughout the time of incarceration. True rehabilitation and recovery from addiction will be the goal.

Third, America will celebrate recovery from active addiction. I do not mean disingenuously celebrating people for doing what they should have been doing all along. I mean the same full-throated sincere celebration we feel when a close friend or relative reaches the five-year survival mark cancer-free. I mean celebrating a person’s willingness to do the painful, difficult work of crawling out of the hole they were in, leaving their ego behind, and accepting help from others who have crawled out of the same hole. I mean recognizing the courage and often the spiritual strength required to overcome greater inner demons than we might ever have had to face ourselves. I mean having enough humility to recognize we do not know with any certainty how we ourselves would have fared in such a struggle. And I mean offering understanding and encouragement to those who are still struggling against the hopelessness that comes from slipping back again into the inner darkness of that hole.

The arc of justice for addicts is truly long, too long for George Floyd to be seen by everyone today with empathy for his struggle with fentanyl and amphetamine. Justice, like America, is an ideal, the moral goal to guide our growth. The arc of the moral universe will bend toward justice, but only when we apply our hearts to bending it by rooting out habits of feeling morally superior in comparison to those we stigmatize. Stigma of drug users arises from the same immature source within ourselves as racial prejudice.

The word empathy does not appear anywhere in our Constitution, but it is embedded in the mutually held belief that your life and liberty are as important and worthy as mine. When any one of us is treated unjustly, we all live in a less perfect union. America is an ideal we alternately approach and withdraw from while slowly including more and more of our neighbors under its umbrella of safety.

The only answer to America’s destructive racial prejudice and corrosive stigmatizing of drug users lies in our willingness to work on our own deep demons. In that regard, we are all truly in the same boat—white, black, and brown people, men, women, and the thousands of other superficial distinctions that divide us from each other.