Drug Overdose Is Only Tragic When It Happens to a Rich White Celebrity
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Randy Miramontez
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The death of 31-year-old "Glee" star Corey Monteith shocked millions of fans around the world and produced a torrent of articles examining his life and death. Monteith overdosed on a combination of heroin and alcohol.
The mainstream media treats the overdose deaths of young, white, rich celebrities in the prime of their lives as a tragedy, not something they brought on themselves or are responsible for. The British Columbia Coroners Service immediately released a statement saying, "There is absolutely nothing at this point, no evidence to suggest this is anything but the most sad and tragic accident."
No articles referred to Monteith as a junkie, dope fiend, addict, drug abuser or criminal. Journalists wrote with sympathy about his troubled teen years and his struggles with addiction starting at age 13.
Last year another young actor, less well known than Monteith, died from an overdose of heroin. His name was DeAndre McCullough and he played bit roles in David Simon’s “The Wire” and “The Corner.” McCullough, who was black, started dealing and using drugs at the age of 15 on the streets and corners of Baltimore. Simon and co-writer Edward Burns chronicled McCullough’s turbulent world in their book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. But press accounts of McCullough’s death didn’t describe it as tragic. One headline read, “DeAndre McCullough, Drug Dealer Who Inspired ‘The Corner,’ Dies at 35,” and another proclaimed, “A Better Life Eternally Eluded the Boy From ‘The Corner.’”
Most articles frontloaded McCullough’s past as a drug dealer, saying that he, like his mother and father, was an “abuser of cocaine and heroin,” and that just before his death warrants were out for his arrest.
Cory Monteith’s overdose death was portrayed as a profound loss that could and should have been prevented. McCullough’s death was discussed as inevitable after a long struggle with an “addiction that won out” or as another account put it, “a demon inside of him that he couldn’t get rid of.” A prominent piece in the New York Times ended by declaring, “His addiction had finally swallowed him whole.”
The lives of McCullough and Monteith were oceans apart and show in black and white how race and class impact addiction. Most likely, Monteith had someone buy heroin for him, which allowed the well-known actor to avoid the violence of the world of illegal drugs and evade the risk of arrest, as well as all the other negative, life-long consequences of a felony drug conviction. His pay for "Glee" was between $30K and $50K per episode, and with personal appearances and endorsements, Monteith was a millionaire.
When Monteith was ready to enter a drug rehabilitation program he could get in right away: No waiting lists for celebrities with cash. The war on drugs dragnet would not capture Monteith.
It was not so for McCullough. At every point his addiction was criminalized and punished. He had to score drugs the way the poor do—hustling on the streets, dealing drugs and constantly dodging beatings or bullets. Passages in The Corner describe how McCullough used his drugs in alleyways, abandoned buildings, and in shooting galleries, not in private, $500-a-night rooms at luxury hotels like Monteith did. Most likely, McCullough was uninsured, so if he wanted treatment he would have waited on a list for months. And the drug warriors who occupied his corner trained their guns on his bombed-out netherworld and eventually caught him.
Racism, poverty and the criminalization of drug use set McCullough up to sell, use and to die from a heroin overdose. The 35-year-old who didn’t think he’d make it past the age of 20 belongs to the most demonized, despised and disposable demographic in America: poor, black, male and addicted.