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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Lessons on Racism from the Crack Era

Reviewing the punitive and racialized law-and-order politics of the ’80s and ’90 reminds us that color-blindness isn’t the solution going forward.

I was born in 1981. Two things I remember about that first decade of my life: cops and drugs. The cops were good. Drugs were bad. These were the messages my classmates and I got in public school. We had a “Men in Blue” day once at school, and in a scrapbook my mother kept, there’s a picture of me, 6 years old, serving a cup of coffee to a police officer.

As for the drugs, we were just told not to do them—which seemed a strange thing to me at the time because I didn’t even know what illicit drugs were. But I do remember seeing “this is your brain on drugs” posters and TV ads, such as the one showing an egg frying in a pan. Cops and drugs, then, were a part of my childhood landscape, but mostly in theory. I never happened to see cops harassing kids or being violent with them (common occurrences nowadays) or kids or their caregivers doing drugs, selling drugs, or acting funny. This was South Texas, in a predominantly Latino, racially mixed part of town located between the urban core and the suburbs. In retrospect, the whole experience seems quaint compared to the situation in so many communities of color in those law-and-order times.

While my community seemed to be getting the “Just Say No” to drugs approach coined by First Lady Nancy Reagan, others got much worse. It was a time of increasingly punitive and racialized politics that used law enforcement to address the public health problem of crack cocaine use, which peaked around 1989. DARE put cops in schools to surveil entire families through their children. Through “seismic shift[s] in drug policy” under President Ronald Reagan, mandatory minimums for drug offenses were instituted along with the building of more prisons. People of color in impoverished communities were targeted for stop and frisk policing and home raids. Journalist Donovan X. Ramsey brings this era into focus through a fascinating and devastating book, When Crack was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era. In the book’s introduction, Ramsey says he decided to “dig into the crack epidemic for myself.” He did five years of research for the book, which gives us a history not only of the War on Drugs and criminal punishment policy more generally but also a humanizing look at people who lived during the period.

Ramsey’s book is fascinating because it traces the life trajectories of four different people with life stories of the kind that aren’t often heard. There’s Kurt Schmoke, a mayor of Baltimore whose advocacy for a decriminization/public health approach to drugs was rejected by the political establishment; Miss Woodley, a crack user turned substance abuse counselor who turned to sex work at times to fund basic necessities and her nearly 30-year addiction; and two crack dealers (Shawn McCray, who is Black, and Elgin Swift, who is white). Ramsey gives us a deeply empathetic look at their lives—and at the structural factors that impacted the decisions they made at various points in their lives. Shawn and Elgin turned to drug dealing, for instance, because it paid more than any job they might hope to find, and it allowed them to buy things (clothing, accessories) that helped them maintain a sense of dignity and pride even as they otherwise had very little materially. The book reminds me of other similarly empathetic works about the lives of poor and working-class people published in recent years: Matthew Desmond’s 2016 Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and Jeff Hobbs’s 2015 The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. For his book, Desmond followed (and lived among) people facing eviction in Milwaukee, telling their stories alongside the story of one of their local landlords for contrast. Hobbs went on a quest to document and write about the family history and upbringing of his college classmate and friend Robert Peace, a Black man from Newark who excelled in school, graduated from Yale University, and became a drug dealer. Peace was killed in a drug-related shooting in 2011. (Shawn, also from Newark, faced similar structural barriers in his life as Peace.)

Ramsey writes about his youth in Columbus, Ohio. In the early ’90s, he remembers using “crackhead” as a part of everyday vocabulary and says that it was even a “go-to insult” among school children. He watched the people around him—people selling things on the streets, visitors coming and going at all hours from a neighbor’s house—and writes: “I did the math and concluded they were also crackheads.” He writes in the introduction:

That type of calculus, I imagine, was common for lots of kids who grew up like me—poor and Black in the midst of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. There were things happening all around us that we knew better than to ask about, things we had to figure out for ourselves. My mother had a policy: Mind your business. That’s exactly what she’d say when she’d catch me stealing glances at the older boys on the corner: “Mind your business.” It was like growing up in a steel town where nobody talked about steel.

Ramsey’s book is devastating because, through the lives of the people he profiles, he shows us just how severe the structural barriers have been to people’s success in the United States. This is particularly true for poor and working-class Black people in urban areas who face all the odds society has stacked against them: disinvestment in urban neighborhoods and public housing with resulting ghettoization, racial discrimination in and underfunding of public schools, and surveillance by the cops. About policing, he writes, “It was as though the police weren’t satisfied until everyone I knew had been stopped, questioned, searched, detained, fined, arrested, jailed, inconvenienced, awakened in the middle of the night, humiliated.”

On top of the structural barriers that were preexisting at the time, the policies of the crack era itself constituted an additional structural barrier rooted in anti-Black racism. Ramsey writes:

Beyond the quantifiable damage, the crack epidemic inflicted harms that cannot be measured—the attitudes, stereotypes, and preconceived notions that still linger in the hearts and minds of many Americans. The crack epidemic advanced in the American imagination the perception of Black people as sick and in need of a firm hand. This idea animated crime legislation to devastating effect, and it persists today in U.S. politics and domestic policy.

Ramsey discusses how the media helped to racialize the crack epidemic, noting how one comprehensive study found, he quotes, “an insidious bias in news coverage through its focus on the inner city, in spite of broader use of crack.” He continues: “The result of such coverage was a perception of the crack epidemic not as a drug trend like any other, but as a deadly plague associated with Black people that needed to be contained.” 

One of the most pernicious and racialized myths that Ramsey discusses is that of the “crack baby.” He explains how in the late ’80s, conservatives “conjured” up the myth of the crack baby based largely on one 1985 study in the New England Journal of Medicine about 23 women whose infants had been exposed to cocaine in pregnancy. The story grew into a “full-blown panic” in the media. One particularly racist 1989 column in the Washington Post read:

The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth. […] “This is not stuff that Head Start can fix. This is permanent brain damage. Whether it is 5 percent or 15 percent of the Black community, it is there.”

The “crack babies” of the era were said to be a financial drain on the country. As one Democratic congressman said in 1988: “These children.… are going to overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come in contact with throughout the rest of their lives.” We now know, as explained by Harriet A. Washington in Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, that the “crack baby” myth was based on deeply flawed research studies. More recent, long-term observational studies comparing children exposed to cocaine during pregnancy to those who weren’t showed no significant differences in IQ tests (the same study found a profound impact, though, from poverty in both the exposed and non-exposed groups). While maternal cocaine use does pose health risks to a mother and fetus/infant, the evidence does not support the “crack baby” symptomatology of a “permanently damaged” person.  

While “crack babies” were supposedly destined for horrible lives, the cocaine sentencing disparity between crack and powder forms of the drug ensured that Black users would suffer harsher sentences as well. (Powder cocaine, of course, was and is the stuff of white Wall Streeters who never seem to get arrested for it.) More money being given to criminalization and broken windows policing rather than treatment for drug addiction also meant two things: people who needed help would instead be sent to prison. And, as Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, the War on Drugs would cause the prison population to soar. Even more importantly, though, she points out, the War on Drugs started before the problem of crack had really taken off in urban neighborhoods. 

Throughout the book, we see how the people Ramsey profiles were impacted by structural factors. Sometimes it was an understanding that society expected a person to fail or that someone was sent to a private school to escape the neglect of underfunded public schools. When there was domestic drug use or abuse, there were seemingly no resources in the community to offer help or safety. Public housing projects isolated Black people from the outside community, and this, Ramsey explains, was actually conducive to illicit activities like drug dealing. (To my mind, this does not prove that public housing is bad but that ghettoization is bad.)

The crack era of the ’80s and ’90s may be over—indeed, as Ramsey writes, “crack, crackheads, dope boys, and crack babies” may now be “punchlines”—but the harm caused by the racist, anti-Black policies of that era isn’t. 

Looking at the structural factors that impact people’s lives in a particular group, even if not all people of that group experienced life the same way, is critical for two reasons: first, so we can appreciate the humanity of people who have often been dehumanized. And second, to create a more just society. I grew up mostly oblivious to the violence and harm of the crack era even as “cops” and “drugs” were a fixture of that time. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be concerned about the significant harm that came to so many during that time. Those of us who were not on the receiving end of the harmful policies of the crack era cannot afford to ignore them if we wish to build a more just society. I do think this entails being race-conscious in our study of history, in our politics, and in the kinds of policies we advocate for.

When you read a book like When Crack Was King, you can’t help but see individual life trajectories as bound up in group inequality, whether race- or class-based. As I spent one weekend reading Ramsey’s book, I couldn’t help but think about the idea of “color-blindness” and how inadequate and wrong it seems as a political philosophy. Shortly before I read When Crack was King, Nathan J. Robinson had written a review of Coleman Hughes’s The End of Race Politics. Hughes advocates for what he calls a “philosophy” of color-blindness. While many of us think of color-blindness as an aspiration akin to what Martin Luther King Jr. said in his “I Have a Dream Speech” (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”), Hughes says that color-blindness is a way to “fight racism.” To him, it means to “treat people without regard to race” in our personal lives and in public policy. As Hughes said in his 2023 TED Talk, “A Case for Colorblindness,” race is not particularly “interesting” because it doesn’t tell us anything about people’s inner qualities which are, presumably, the things that matter most. What’s more, in order to address inequality in society, it would be better to focus on class, which he says is a better “proxy for disadvantage” than race. In a 2023 debate with Jamelle Bouie about color-blindness, Hughes identified what he considered examples of “disastrous” race-based policies: COVID restaurant relief that created a time-limited prioritization period for applicants based on race/ethnicity, gender, and veteran status (along with financial need) and the state of New York taking race into account as a risk factor for access to COVID-19 therapeutics. He also pivots multiple times in the debate with Bouie to the “luminaries” of the civil rights movement and how he simply aligns with their vision of a color-blind society. (I don’t find it at all persuasive that the civil rights leaders of the past desired a color-blind society in the way that Hughes conceives of it. For specific counter-arguments on that point, I recommend reading Robinson’s review and watching the debate with Bouie. )

Having read some of Hughes’s blog entries and op-eds and having watched his TED talk and debate with Bouie, I find his case unpersuasive. Reading a book like Ramsey’s makes the Hughes case even more unpersuasive. I think most people who don’t harbor deep-seated bigotry would agree that we shouldn’t use people’s race to judge their inner qualities. But the idea that race isn’t “interesting” should be contested. Race is actually very “interesting” if we think about, as Bouie points out, “group inequality” in a number of different aspects of life.

Consider housing. Why do you live where you live? What kind of housing did your family have access to, and what are the property values like in the neighborhood where you grew up? As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor documents in Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Home Ownership, property values have always been tied to race. And since homeownership has historically been the main way Americans have built wealth, race plays a huge part in wealth inequality today. If wealth accumulation helps determine your class, then how can we separate race from class here? Furthermore, as Richard Rothstein argues in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America, federal, state, and local governments segregated the country and even created segregation where communities had previously been integrated! Rothstein makes a convincing case that there is a need for state-based remedy for this harm. It’s difficult for me to see how any of the race-based harms against African Americans in housing will be addressed without regard to race.

Consider public education. What’s the quality of your public school like? How do people in the institutions around you treat you? How’s your healthcare access and quality? These questions cannot be answered without considering both race and class. I don’t see why it’s either/or and why we cannot use race and class to inform policy.

As for the “disastrous” race-conscious policies Hughes complains about, it’s notable that these policies were apparently considered “disastrous” by the dominant group in society: white people. More specifically, by a few individual white people who got mad and decided to bring a lawsuit against these programs in order to advance their political agenda. As Bouie pointed out in the debate, race has to be understood as a social construct that comes about within a system of domination and subordination of people. So, to my mind, it’s not entirely surprising that the dominant group wouldn’t want members of the subordinated group to be prioritized. But the mere fact of white backlash isn’t a very good argument against race-consciousness. It wasn’t a good argument against Emancipation and Reconstruction, the white backlash to which led to the rise of the KKK and Jim Crow. It wasn’t a good argument against civil rights legislation. And it isn’t a good argument against race-consciousness now.

It was white restaurant owners in various states who challenged the restaurant relief policy in court and won. But the problem with the COVID restaurant relief program was not actually its prioritization of applicants based on race and gender. Applicants had to demonstrate that they had “limited financial means.” As it happened, Congress authorized such meager funds, the New York Times notes, that once the prioritized people were accounted for, there would have been little left over for other recipients. So the problem here is that Congress underfunded the program! What’s more, some of the court cases were backed by groups with explicit political agendas. In Texas, it was America First Legal (run by none other than xenophobe Stephen Miller), a nonprofit which seeks to “challenge” the “lawlessness” of the “radical left.” In Tennessee, it was the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal nonprofit.

The case of New York state prioritizing high-risk COVID patients and allowing non-white race to be considered one of many “risk factors” for severe illness hardly ought to be controversial. What happened was that lawsuits were filed against the state by white people, including one by a Cornell law professor claiming the policy amounted to “racial discrimination.” (The professor, William A. Jacobson, has also come out against bias training and diversity and inclusion in law schools—big surprise there.) The lawsuit was dismissed, but inflammatory headlines distorting the policy promoted white backlash to the policy: “NY governor didn’t issue memo ‘denying white people’ medical treatments,” the Associated Press wrote. Fox News’s clever headline went: “New York says it will prioritize non-White people in distributing low supply of COVID-19 treatments.” Donald Trump, expert in stoking racial animosity, echoed this idea, saying, “In New York state, if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical help.”

Again, we have a manufactured white backlash to a perfectly sensible policy that had to be instituted due to “scarce COVID-19 treatments.” The larger question is why there was a shortage of COVID medicines at all in the richest country in the world. The real problem here is not non-white people or the health system’s attention to race in the distribution of resources. Supply chain disruptions due to COVID notwithstanding, medication shortages are often the failure of our for-profit healthcare and pharmaceutical systems to adequately provide for our people. The enemy here is also the structural racism that puts racial minorities at increased risk of death from COVID in the first place. It’s understandable that many people have a reflexively negative reaction to using race as a factor in considering the severity of a person’s disease (and thus their eligibility for medication) because race is not, of course, a biological category. But the reality is that due to structural racism, race is a proxy for social determinants of health. It is a fact that Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans have faced higher risk of severe disease and/or mortality from COVID than whites.

To sum up, manufactured scarcity is one great way to pit groups against each other. On the left, we recognize that race (and class and gender and sexuality) is just one dimension which can be weaponized so that people focus on “others” as the enemy instead of the often state-run manufactured austerity that is our common enemy. I don’t necessarily blame any white people who read incendiary headlines about COVID medications and experienced genuine fear that their needs wouldn’t be met. But I do blame people like Hughes for apparently using politically-motivated white backlash as his barometer for whether policies that prioritized financially needy/medically high-risk people are good or not. It’s also important to note that in the case of the restaurant fund lawsuits, while some prioritized applicants ended up having their payments halted, those who filed the lawsuits in court in the Times story were in fact paid by the government. These reactionary litigants had no problem using the courts to deprive the most needy applicants of funds while they walked away with their own payouts. 

Now, affirmative action. This is something Hughes often pivoted to in the debate with Bouie—which Bouie called out, as he wanted to keep the focus on “group inequality,” not one particular program to help individuals excel. Hughes’s critique of affirmative action—that it often ends up benefiting well-off minorities and not the poor—is well taken. But it’s not an argument against race-consciousness. It’s an argument against using affirmative action specifically to try to remedy class inequality. Affirmative action is poorly suited to that purpose. And, as Bouie pointed out, affirmative action was legitimized by the courts due to “diversity” benefits—not, for instance, to right a racial harm done by slavery. Affirmative action was also attacked—and undone—by a small number of disgruntled white people who have weaponized race to promote their own agenda of simply eliminating the diversification of higher education. In any case, as has been argued in this publication, the real problem of admissions in elite universities is one of manufactured scarcity. Why have elite universities to begin with? Abolish Harvard and the Ivies, make college free for everyone, and ensure that all students get a high-quality, non-segregated public education.

Now, on the idea of color-blindness in public policy. Hughes says that color-blindness is a philosophy that can be used to fight racism. Yet societies can still use color-blindness to enact very racist and unjust policies. In the crack era, there was a lot of seemingly race-neutral rhetoric. “Inner city” and “law and order” and “superpredator” and “welfare queen” were racially-coded terms that referred to the Black poor. “Crack baby,” too, referred to urban people of color. All this rhetoric was of course used to justify the harsh policies of the era. It’s worth remembering that mandatory minimums, crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparities—along with the poll taxes and literacy tests of the not-too-distant past—were all ostensibly race-neutral policies that had racially disparate effects.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander wrote a very convincing book in 2010 that connects the so-called color-blindness of the last several decades to the disturbing phenomenon that is mass incarceration. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she explains how we tend to think of the present era as one of relative color-blindness. We’ve had a Black president, which some saw as evidence that there is indeed no more racism (which is, of course, false). And in this era, it is no longer socially permissible, Alexander notes, to “use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt.” (The one exception is, or was, affirmative action.) But what has happened is that our criminal punishment system uses “criminal” (felon) to designate a race-neutral caste of second-class citizens who, by virtue of their criminal history, may now be legally discriminated against in voting, housing, and employment. African Americans currently make up 37 percent of the imprisoned but only 13 percent of the population, and the media and politicians have fully inculcated the populace with fear of the Black male, specifically, as criminal. “Criminal” has, Alexander argues, essentially replaced the old caste signifier that was race. This is how mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow.” 

Alexander makes a very persuasive case in her book, and I recommend everyone read it. The point here is not that you have to agree fully with Alexander’s “Jim Crow” analogy. But it is clear that society can use race-neutral designations in ways that disproportionately harm particular racial groups and lead to racially disparate outcomes. Importantly, these disparate outcomes happen because everything in the criminal punishment system—from cops targeting certain neighborhoods to limited access to public defenders to prosecutors pressuring the accused to take plea bargains and even jury selection—happens inside a structurally racist system. The criminal punishment system is racist in its practices and so its outcomes are racially disparate. This can hardly be considered acceptable to anyone of conscience. And, as Alexander argues, the cruel system of mass incarceration “cannot be successfully dismantled with a purely race-neutral approach.” She writes: 

The criminalization and demonization of black men is one habit America seems unlikely to break without addressing head-on the racial dynamics that have given rise to successive caste systems. Although colorblind approaches to addressing the problems of poor people of color often seem pragmatic in the short run, in the long run they are counterproductive. Colorblindness, though widely touted as the solution, is actually the problem.

We’re not going to undo the anti-Black harms of the crack era—or any of the ongoing racial injustices we face now—without a concerted effort to be race-conscious. Race consciousness means not just “looking at” race when necessary but also ensuring that policies in general are not carried out in racist ways. One reasonable democratic socialist approach described by Andrea Flynn and colleagues is “targeted universalism,” where everyone is included but special attention is paid to the least privileged.

Hughes says that we all see race and that that’s fine. But then we have to disregard it. But how do you “see race” and then unsee it—either at the personal level or the policy level? Doesn’t this amount to a kind of racial indifference? Alexander writes: “Racial indifference and blindness—far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation of all racial caste systems.”

She also writes:

Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, who we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.

“Love” here does not seem to mean sentimentality. It means true concern for others. It means, as Cornel West likes to say, justice. “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Color-blindness as a personal practice should not be scaled up to public policy. When Coleman Hughes says we should “end race in policy altogether and focus on class,” it just doesn’t compute—not only because the two are tied together but because “without regard to race” really boils down to without dealing with the vast structural racism that still exists in our society. I agree with Hughes that we shouldn’t seek to “manufacture” equal levels of particular outcomes among members of different racial groups. The goal shouldn’t be equal levels of poverty, police killings, homelessness, uninsured status, or college degrees. I want no poverty, police killings, or homelessness for anyone—and healthcare for all and college for everyone who wants to go. But we’re not going to get there without race- and class-conscious analysis and policies. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once put it, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” We can disregard race—and we’ll still be left with racism.

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