White Fright: Opioids in Suburbanizing America

Andrew Binet


This paper traces epidemiological and journalistic investigations of suburban heroin use from the 1960s-1980s in order to reflect on the significance of suburban environments and ways of life to understanding historical and contemporary epidemiological patterns and trajectories of heroin use. I show that scientific and media efforts to make sense of the shifting geography and demographics of heroin use demonstrate considerable concern about the realization of suburbanization’s promises of wellbeing and freedom from the moral decay of the city, as well as the potential consequences of suburban lifestyles. Based on these findings, I suggest that the suburb’s force as a site of social imagination and desire was undermined by patterns of heroin use that called into question idealized narratives about these spaces and those who called them home, exposing the “cruel optimism” of the suburban dream. Subsequent efforts to protect middle- and upper-class white communities from external threats to the integrity of their collective illusion resulted in further racialization, criminalization, incarceration and neglect of “urban” drug addicts who were predominantly poor and of color, as well as their communities, in large part through the War on Drugs. I conclude by reflecting on the value of suburbanization as an analytic lens through which the many disparate tales of opioid epidemics past and present, differentiated along racial, class and spatial lines, may be synthesized and rendered interdependent.


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