White Health Benefits of Histories of Enslavement: The Case of Opioid Deaths

AuthorHedwig Lee,Ryan Gabriel,Michael Esposito,Margaret T. Hicken,David Cunningham,Geoff Ward
Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterContemporary Analyses and Implications
142 ANNALS, AAPSS, 694, March 2021
DOI: 10.1177/00027162211009776
White Health
Benefits of
Histories of
The Case of
Opioid Deaths
1009776ANN The Annals Of The American AcademyWhite Health Benefits Of Histories Of Enslavement
Popular media and researchers have given increasing
attention to the perceived growing alienation and
despair of white Americans. The narrative of white
decline has been particularly robust in light of the
recent uptick in premature deaths of whites from opi-
oid use, but this national conversation has lacked con-
sideration of potential associations between opioid
mortality among whites and durable legacies of white
advantage that were established through historical
racial violence. We provide an initial analysis of how
contemporary patterns of white opioid mortality in the
counties of southern states relate to the presence of
slavery and postbellum institutions of racial social con-
trol in those counties. We find that areas in the South
with higher rates of past enslavement are associated
with contemporary reductions of white vulnerability, in
this case, opioid mortality. This finding supports the
thesis that historical institutions of racial control offer a
protective benefit within the modern white population.
Keywords: opioids; white advantage; slavery; lynch-
ing; Ku Klux Klan
Amid the buildup of radical right-wing
populism in the United States, and the
resurgence of white nationalism, much atten-
tion has been paid by popular media and
researchers to claims of growing alienation
and despair among white Americans (Case
and Deaton 2020; Cherlin 2016). For exam-
ple, in a national survey published in 2011,
Ryan Gabriel is an assistant professor of sociology at
Brigham Young University. His research focuses on
urban sociology with a specific emphasis on racial resi-
dential segregation, residential mobility, and neighbor-
hood attainment. He is broadly interested in the
legacies of racial violence.
Michael Esposito is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute
for Social Research, University of Michigan. As of June
2021, he will be an assistant professor sociology at
Washington University in St. Louis. His research, gen-
erally, aims to clarify how structural racism shapes
population health.
Correspondence: ryangabriel@byu.edu

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