The Crack Epidemic: How the US Government Failed Black Americans

Ricochet was born into an unstable home with a verbally abusive mother in 196`1. She quickly became involved with drugs, alcohol and both abusive and drug-addicted men. Ricochet eventually moved out of her childhood home, and into a low income Harlem housing project with her two children. She soon developed an addiction to crack, which led to the neglect of her children.

 To support her addiction, she often spent money on obtaining crack cocaine instead of necessary items such as food and clothing for her children, and prostituted herself for drugs when money became unavailable. 

Ricochet fell into a cycle of entering relationships with viciously abusive men and being unable to maintain housing for both herself and her children, while simultaneously feeding her addiction to crack. By 1998, Ricochet had lost custody of both her children and was once again in a relationship of domestic violence. 

Ricochet’s story does not have a resolution or a happy ending, nor is it a unique experience. It is the result of America’s treatment of addiction as a social plague rather than a public health crisis.

Crack cocaine’s production in America began in the 1980s. The drug was quickly popularized as a result of its cheap pricing and highly addictive nature. With the introduction of crack came an emergence of inner city drug markets that supported frequent users. Prior to and during the 80s, “white flight” occurred. White Americans moved into the suburbs in large groups, while Black Americans were often denied access to these suburbs, resulting in high numbers of Black Americans residing in poorly resourced inner city communities

These communities provided very little economic opportunity, leading several young Black men to become small time drug dealers during the crack era. Crack dealers made large profits, and the desire to protect this cash flow led to an increase in inner city violence. The homicide rate for Black males between the ages of 14 and 17 more than doubled during the crack era, between 1984 and 1994. 

Rather than promoting rehabilitation, the US government responded to the crack epidemic with an attitude of deterrence. Former president Ronald Reagan famously characterized his government’s response to the crack epidemic as the “War on Drugs.” However, the Reagan administration’s legislation and course of action during the War on Drugs era made it clear that this was not a declaration of war on drugs, but rather a war on inner city Black communities. 

The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act targeted Black inner city crack users and dealers, as it required a mandatory minimum sentence of five years without parole for 5 grams of crack cocaine, while requiring the same mandatory minimum sentence for 500 grams of powder cocaine. Powder cocaine was much more expensive than crack cocaine, and more importantly, almost exclusively used by white Americans.

The act also led to the mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands young Black Americans, specifically young Black males. By 1989, 1 in every 4 black men aged 20 to 29 was either incarcerated or on probation. These statistics gave the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world in 1989, and this rate continued to increase between 1989 and 1995.

 The implementation of these racist policies had consequences for the Black family dynamic. During the 1990s, the majority of black households were single mother households, as Black men were being lost to the prison system, addiction, or drug related violence. Several of these single mothers found it difficult to support their children alone, and often turned to selling or using crack themselves. 

Addiction is a disease, and an addiction to crack is no different. The desire to continue, support and fulfill this addiction often superseded familial responsibilities, creating the Crack Generation.

The Crack Generation encompasses children born during the crack era or children directly affected by a parent’s crack addiction. This generation of children inherited structural disadvantages, counterproductive behaviors and a lack of preparation for a structured and adult lifestyle from their parents. They were forced to find ways to survive in unstable homes, like Ricochet’s two children. The crack epidemic also resulted in an increase of low birth weights and fetal deaths for black pregnant women. But the Reagan administration was not concerned with these devastating realities. The US government saw the spread of a drug mostly used by Black Americans, and the spread of fear of this drug by white Americans, and these two factors dictated an all too familiar response: a disregard of Black fears to soothe white fears.

The response to a crack epidemic was a failure. It failed to address the root cause of the spread of crack addiction within Black communities: economic and social inequality rooted in America’s longstanding history of systemic racism. Instead, America did one of the things it does best, criminalize its Black citizens. If crack users had been presented with an opportunity for rehabilitation, instead of jail time, it is possible the history of the crack epidemic would not be as devastatingly tragic and racist as it is.

Image credits: Vox, via the New York Daily News/Getty Images

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