Interview with Raymond D. Rosas, author of “From Junkies to Victims: The Racial Projects of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the U.S. Opioid Epidemic.”
Rosas’ article was recently published in issue 6.1 Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. In this interview, assistant editor Amy Reed asked Rosas about the experience of writing this article and the implications for teaching policy to undergraduate students.
AR: Can you talk a little bit about the story of how this publication came to be? In particular, as a current graduate student, what advice do you have for new graduate students who are looking to publish?
RDR: This publication began as a seminar project in a seminar on Rhetoric and Public Science Controversy. I had been itching to write about the opioid epidemic since I began graduate school and had put together several thought pieces at the intersection of race and narcotic drug use. However, this seminar provided an opportunity to settle on a framework for analysis as well as an opportunity to situate my work in ongoing conversations in RHM. My advice to new graduate students would be to approach seminars as not only opportunities to enrich established research interests but also to expand horizons. For example, the emphasis on public controversy added a dimension to my research that I had not anticipated. This framework helped me expand the article’s research contribution, which ultimately helped me increase its chances for publication.
AR: In the first sections of the article, you provide some context for considering both the opioid epidemic and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (ADAA) of 1986 as “racial projects.” Prior to this, you warn the reader: “I offer very little in terms of transition between these sections; I invite the reader to embrace the dissonance such a jarring shift might create, as dissonance is a key analytic moment from which to begin exploration of racial dynamics.” As a reader, I found this statement to be a helpful instruction on how to read the piece as well as powerful commentary in-and-of-itself. Can you tell us a little bit more about the deliberation behind that warning? Why was it important to include?
RDR: Of course. As a reader of academic work, I understand the importance of explicit transitions from section to section. However, when you step back and consider the distinct contexts of ADAA and the current response to opioid use you have to pause and reflect in order to appreciate the messiness and racial calculus that circumscribe these situations. One way to encourage such reflection is to jettison stylistic expectations. My hope was to invite readers to linger a bit longer on what it takes to make the leap from addiction-as-crime to addiction-as-medical condition.
AR: You rely on Habermas to argue that “racism hijacks communication to activate a mechanism of rewards and punishments undergirded by racist logic” and you apply this observation to both policy (ADAA) and legal testimony (opioid epidemic). You also mention that this dynamic operates at micro and macro levels. I’m wondering if you considered other genres or texts for this analysis, or–if not–what others you might extend the analysis to in the future?
RDR: When I began writing this article, I had considered using various promotional genres from Purdue Pharma. The David Egilman Papers at Brown University is a wonderful archive for anyone interested in the technical genres associated with OxyContin. As I mentioned in the article, I think it would be worthwhile to extend analysis to the addiction obituaries that Kristen L. Cole and Anna F. Carmon explore in the pages of RHM. I imagine addiction obituaries could illustrate racial dynamics at the level of personal narrative.
AR: One of my takeaways from your article is the need to understand policy as a “racial project”–both in terms of how it comes to be and in how it is operationalized. I’m wondering about how you might approach a pedagogical lesson about policy in an undergraduate RHM class?
RDR: I think there’s a lot of pedagogical value in having students consider the intertextuality of policy documents to illustrate how race informs policy in ways that may go unnoticed. Racial projects are ultimately projects of signification that may or may not be codified. I would have students identify a medical policy they are interested in and then have them consider the genre ecologies that animate the specific policy. To illustrate intertextuality, I would demonstrate how the antecedent context (in Congress) for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 culled together news articles, scholarly manuscripts, and personal anecdotes to create a racially charged discourse economy that created links among race, drugs, and criminality. Of course, these explicit links were obscured at the point of codification in ADAA which demonstrates one way facially neutral polices come to be.