Rocks and Riches: How Crack Cocaine Affected America

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Photo by essexpoetry via Flickr

Crack cocaine dominated the drug world of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States.  It destroyed countless lives, ravaged entire communities, and fueled mass incarceration. However, that’s only part of the story.

In Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed, David Farber, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Kansas, places the epidemic in the context of America’s economic transformation during the 1980s and 1990s, and shows how the stories of those who risked their lives to sell the drug, the people who became its addicted consumers, and the authorities who incarcerated them were part of a larger and troubling moment in U.S. history which continues to have repercussions today.

david farber

David Farber

In a conversation with TCR, Farber discussed how, despite its devastating impact on the African-American community, the business of selling crack cocaine became a passport to success, legitimacy and riches for some young men in the 1980s and 1990s, and why their amoral approach to success shouldn’t surprise readers of ‘The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump’s best-seller of that era.

This transcript of the conversation has been condensed and edited for space.

The Crime Report: How did your background in history lead you to the subject of this book?

David Farber: I’ve written quite a few books that speak to the intersection of capitalism and politics in the U.S., and that has taken me into the territory of work on drugs and the war on drugs.  This book was a natural outgrowth of my interest in the predicament of people at the bottom of the U.S. economy and the ways in which drug regimes have structured American life.

TCR: How is the popular narrative of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s incomplete?

DF:  As a historian, I was interested in the way that the crack cocaine business was a kind of variant of the buccaneer capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s—a time when the United States economy was being transformed.  My story kind of foregrounds the ways in which these “deviant globalizers” got into the low-tech, value-added drug business in the U.S.  I tell the story of crack as a variant of globalization, neoliberalism, and the ways in which people on the streets of America’s inner cities tried to get their piece of the dream.

TCR: The common narrative of crack is that it was an epidemic. However, in your book you suggest that this is both correct and incorrect.

DF: I think scholars and serious policymakers understood a long time ago that the word “epidemic,” when it relates to crack cocaine usage, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, was a kind of moral panic. It wasn’t really explanatory of what was going on in the country at that time.  In some communities, especially poor, inner city, mostly African-American communities, there was a kind of epidemic of crack cocaine use.  But it was a localized epidemic. It was certainly not one that spread to America’s suburbs or its upper-middle class neighborhoods.  So, “epidemic” can be misleading, even though it was devastating and widely used in poor inner city communities.

TCR: How did the crack narrative contribute to the social stigmatization of the minority communities that it affected the most?

DF: I wanted to get across the racial politics and racial injustice that surrounded crack.  I’m not the first person to do that, but I wanted to explore it in some depth.  One of the things that was really striking to me was the tremendous fear of the spread of drug use in the U.S. in the 1980s.  In the 1970s, there was a move towards the decriminalization of marijuana and easing up of penalties on cocaine.  But afterwards, there was a real backlash and counterattack.

When crack started to take off in the early 1980s, I think a lot of white, suburban middle-class types were terrified that this heavy drug—and it was a heavy drug—would move into those marijuana-smoking communities in high schools and suburbs.


U.S. Customs Drug Awareness poster 1986. Courtesy Govdocgwen via Flickr

There was also fear that this drug, identified with black dealers, would seep its way into white America.  And the broader politics of drug conflict and drug wars played into the kind of merciless treatment that ensued for both users and sellers of crack.  The racialized vision of drug use exacerbated the problem.

TCR: Why was crack so popular during this time in history compared to other drugs such as opioids and powder cocaine?

DF: It’s always intriguing to try to think through why certain drugs become so popular at a certain time.  I think crack cocaine had a few advantages, as perceived by heavy drug users at the time.  One thing that I didn’t really emphasize in the book is that this was also a time when AIDS was spreading in the U.S. People understood by the mid-1980s that needles were [potential sources] of spreading AIDS.  Crack cocaine had an advantage over heroin or other injectable drugs in that it was smoked. People were conscious of that in the heavy drug user community.

I think it also appealed to women, who had not traditionally been needle users.  Here was a really explosive high-powered drug, that you could just smoke. I think that was one of the devastating reasons why crack was an equal-opportunity drug for both and men and women, something that the heroin epidemic of the prior decades had not been.

I also think you had a lot of serious drug users who wanted a really explosive high, and crack delivers that kind of high, and it’s really cheap.  It was marketers’ brilliant intervention to figure out how to sell a heavy dose of a drug for five bucks a pop.  And this was a time when a lot of people were looking for oblivion.

TCR: But as your book suggests, this racialized vision of drug use didn’t only divide whites from poor blacks.

DF: It was a kind of class battle within the black community itself.  Another thing I wanted to contribute through this book was a realization that this drug really did hit black communities hard.  Black communities were divided. It terrified a lot of respectable, church-going black people in Chicago, New York, and other big cities around the country.  They were the ones who were victimized the most.  It was their children, their neighbors, people on their blocks, who fell prey to this drug, and robbed and assaulted people.  (But) by the early 1990s, within black communities, a lot of people started to fear that the solution to crack, mass incarceration, was worse than the problem itself.

And that’s when you started to see some pushback against what was a  merciless criminal justice approach to what could have been treated as a public health crisis.  Within the black community that public health perspective caught on quicker than it did anywhere else because they saw both the horrors of crack and also the over-militarized police response to it in their own communities.

TCR: Why was it so difficult for the police at this time to effectively tackle the issue of crack during its rise in popular consumption?

DF: This is a long story about how policing works in poorer neighborhoods, especially poor black neighborhoods.  To some extent, the police have always had a kind of ambivalent relationship to what are seen as everyday vices (prostitution, gambling, public drinking, and even drug use), usually waiting for some kind of outcry from the higher-ups, or respectable folks, or whoever they think has the authority to push them around.  The underground economy in the U.S. is often under-policed and racialized and there are a lot of reasons for that.  It wasn’t really until some of the drug crews started to become so visible and so violent and, in one New York City incident, killed a police officer, that you start to see the police recognizing this as a higher priority than they thought.

I tell in some detail the story of Chicago, where police, for the longest time, really until the late 1980s, didn’t feel they had the capacity to go after street-corner drug dealers.  The courts were full and police had so much on their hands dealing with violent crime.  They basically just exercised a kind of street justice on drug dealers: They stole their drugs, beat them up, and told them to get off the corner.  It wasn’t until they saw that there was a political will and administrative capacity that police started to round up street-corner dealers, guys who were making $150 a week selling crack.

That started happening all over the US.  As the federal and state governments put more money into law enforcement, and drug-law enforcement in particular, you start to see mass roundups of these petty drug dealers. That really lends itself to what we now call mass incarceration.

TCR: How did we get from the beginnings of policing the drug trade to the more severe laws and penalties that were implemented during the war on drugs?

DF: The story that I tell about crack is the exclamation point to this broader movement.  You could make a case that the era of mass incarceration kicks off in the mid-1960s and then picks up as time goes on.  What I saw with crack was a real movement into what were often pretty small-time transactions of drugs, and a moral panic that crack was going to spread its wings all over the U.S.  In 1989, the internal polling of the  George H.W. Bush administration revealed that fear of drugs was the number one domestic issue in the US.

I don’t buy the idea that there was some sort of conspiracy at the top that tricked Americans into being afraid of drug use.  It welled up from below as well.  Politicians took advantage of that fear and exacerbated it, but there were a lot of Americans worried about what they saw as an increasingly drug-rampant culture.  And there was reason to think that, drug use really did explode from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s.

TCR: Your book describes many of the key figures involved in the distribution and selling of crack.  How did many of these men come to be identified as empathetic, and even heroic, characters in the communities they helped destroy?  

DF: [My book] tries to tell what this looked like from the perspective of poor young black men in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s.  Some of these guys, with reason, thought that they had been locked out of the American Dream and that there were no real vehicles for them in the transformed economy they were growing up in.  Not surprisingly, especially in poor communities, when these crack dealers figured out a way to start making $1,000 and then $10,000 a week, a lot of people looked at them as examples of how to make it in America.  They’re wearing gold chains, and they’re driving Cadillacs, and they have what everybody wants.

I think there was a culture in the U.S. that celebrated this kind of ostentatious wealth-getting regardless of the moral principles that underlay it. Donald Trumps’ Art Of The Deal came out in 1986.  I’m not saying that Trump is the same as Slim Edmond in Washington D.C., the crack kingpin, but there’s a relationship between those two phenomena.  I think that’s what a lot of people in poor communities saw as a way to get out.

By no means did everyone in the black community think that.  Church leaders, community activists, and politicians were furious about the celebration of these criminals, who were often violent and willing to do anything to get rich.  On the other hand, if you are 14, and that’s what you see on your corner, and gangster rap comes up at the same time as these crack dealers, there’s a synergy. They celebrate one another in the era that I call “The Decade of Greed.”

TCR: Some of these men tried to use crack dealing as a vehicle to legitimate lives and business practices.  

DF: I was really impressed by the degree to which a lot of these guys, I’m talking about major crack dealers who were amassing millions of dollars, tried to figure out how to, if nothing else,  launder their money and keep it within their communities. Anybody who’s lived in, or adjacent to, poor neighborhoods has seen a lot of nail salons, hair salons, car services, and all kinds of businesses.  I’m not saying that all of them were funded or capitalized with drug money; but some where.  You certainly saw this in the world of hip hop, night clubs, and music labels.

Jay-Z has [recounted] how he raised close to a million dollars selling crack and used it to start his music career.  He’s not the only one.  That’s a real thing: how do you find capital in America when you can’t go to a bank and get credit?  Going back a hundred years, a lot of groups who felt themselves on the outside turned to illegal businesses to do it, whether it was alcohol or smuggling or a multitude of other things.  The crack era was another iteration of an old American story.

TCR: As you suggest, gangster rap, and the hip hop culture of the 1980s and 1990s, go hand in hand with the crack epidemic. But you also suggest  the popularized drug culture served as a tool for reform and protest.

DF: If you look carefully at hip hop then and the ways in which hip hop has pondered drug money and drug dealers ever since, you always see a kind of ambivalence.  On the one hand there is some celebration, and plenty of it.  These are 20-year olds looking at other 20-year-olds who are driving brand new Jaguars down the streets of Bed-Stuy and thinking that’s amazing.  It’s a natural human reaction.  It was tragic, it was horrible, it was a misleading way to think about what life would be like as a drug dealer, and that kind of celebration put a lot of young men into jail after trying to pursue that dream.

But, if you’re in the business of telling stories about the life that you see all around you, how do you not have a Robin Hood story?  If you look at some people, I quote Killer Mike and the rapper Ka, there were a lot of them saying this was a trick and that this is, essentially, a story of how white America narrowed the path so much that the only way you could get up on the economy was to do something illegal that was going to put you in the penitentiary.  People were aware of those ambivalences.

TCR: How does the treatment of the crack epidemic compare to the handling of the opioid epidemic of today?

DF: The irony is that the opioid epidemic is far more deadly and far more widespread than the use of crack cocaine ever was.  Yet we’re obviously treating these two crises differently.  I like to think that part of the reason we’re treating the opioid crisis with a greater deal of humanity, and thinking of it as a public health crisis, is that we learned something from the war on drugs, and in particular the war on crack, that took place in the 1980s and 1990s.  I like to think that we learned something about mass incarceration and its failures and that we’ve had to rethink what to do about this new crisis.

But, to be blunt, I think the other piece is that one occurred in the black community and one started out, at least primarily, in the white community. There’s a racial inflection.  I also think that the fact that the drug distributors in the opioid epidemic were rich people—big corporations and doctors and pharmacists—helps to explain the difference in approach.  Hopefully we’ve now learned how to treat drug abusers in a way in which our hearts can be melded with our brains to do something sensible about the problem.

TCR: In your opinion, why is it so hard for our society to tackle the real causes of crises like these, such as education, joblessness, and poverty?

DF: That’s as much a fundamental question of our politics in the 21st century as it was in the late 20th.  I think it’s really easy to stigmatize people whom we see as failures, or people whom we fear.  Education, treatment, prevention—those are the tools we need to prioritize.  But it takes a will and a kind of empathic imagination to get people to that place.  The opioid epidemic was so widespread and hit communities that were so unexpected, that white Americans were forced to think differently about drug abuse.  How do we do that for people who are more distant from one another?  It’s a riddle that we’re still trying to figure out.

TCR: How did the United States evolve from a country where most drugs were legal and socially acceptable to one of the leaders in their criminalization and stigma?

DF: Many Americans would be shocked to learn that in the 1890s you could walk into a pharmacy and buy some heroin, or go to the corner store and buy a cocaine elixir and use it as an energy drink.

It’s a grim reminder of the blurry line between what is acceptable and what isn’t and how we reify that and make it magical.  Cocaine [in  the contemporary view] is “terrible and deadly and criminal, and you should go to jail for 20 years if you sell it, but alcohol and nicotine are OK.” But in my first chapter I tried to remind people that we’ve only had a drug regime of prohibition and punishment for a century.  In the 19th century nobody thought that you should prohibit all these substances.

That was a public health disaster in some ways; you had hundreds of thousands of middle class and middle aged people, women in particular, becoming opioid addicts in that era.  There were real downsides.  But the new prohibitionist, merciless regime that has been widespread for 80 or 90 years is [a change]. We’re seeing [a kind of reversal] now with cannabis right now.   We’re deciding maybe it wasn’t so bad, whereas 35 years ago you could go to jail for 20 years for getting caught with a few joints in the state of Texas.

TCR: How does the shifting public approach to drugs intersect with economic change?

DF:  The 1980s and 1990s were a period of profound economic transformation, especially for relatively unschooled and unskilled people, in this country.  This is the era of deindustrialization, offshoring, and globalization accelerating rapidly.  It really left a generation adrift.  I don’t want to apologize for people who became merciless drug dealers, there were legitimate jobs out there, but they were fewer.  For many young men [those jobs] seemed less manly, they were service jobs, they were working under women as bosses.  I think it created a profound crisis of masculinity in a lot of these communities.

But, more than anything, there was a sense that the economy of their fathers and grandfathers was gone.  And I think in 2020 we’re still kind of working our way through what you do for young men who are trying to find their place in an economy in which their skills and education don’t fit very well.  And underground economies are where those kinds of people usually find themselves.

Isidoro Rodriguez is  a contributing writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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