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Why the crack cocaine epidemic hit Black communities 'first and worst'

President George H. W. Bush holds a bag of crack cocaine as he poses for photographers in the Oval Office of the White House, Sept. 5, 1989.
Dennis Cook
President George H. W. Bush holds a bag of crack cocaine as he poses for photographers in the Oval Office of the White House, Sept. 5, 1989.

On Sept. 5, 1989, President George H.W. Bush appeared on live television to discuss what he called the nation's "gravest domestic threat." Sitting at his desk in the oval office, Bush held up a bag of crack cocaine that had been seized in a park across from the White House, saying: "It's as innocent looking as candy, but it's turning our cities into battle zones."

Looking back now, author and journalist Donovan X. Ramsey describes Bush's press conference as a form of propaganda designed to create a panic about the crack epidemic and to "demonize drug dealers and also addicts."

"George H.W. Bush really wanted to start his administration with a bang and being tough on crime and was a big part of that," Ramsey says. "His office made a decision that they wanted to give a big address on drugs and they wanted to use crack cocaine as a prop."

In his new book, When Crack Was King: A People's History of A Misunderstood Era, Ramsey examines the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early '90s from the points of view of four people who lived through it — and considers the lasting harm inflicted on the Black community by the government's response. For Ramsey, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the story is personal.

"Being a Black man who was born in 1987, the crack epidemic predates me; I've never existed in a world where crack didn't exist," he says. "So I had this real kind of deep yearning to ... fill in what felt like a gap in between the civil rights movement that we hear so much about and where we are today. And the crack epidemic seemed like that missing link."

Ramsey traces the advent of crack to a group of chemistry students at U.C. Berkeley who devised a recipe for freebasing cocaine using water and baking soda. The resulting substance provided a cheap, smokable way for people to get high quickly.

Crack spread "like wildfire" across America, Ramsey says, but it tended to hit Black neighborhoods particularly hard: "What it means to be Black in this society is to be hit first and worst."

As the epidemic took hold, the media presented apocalyptic views of Black neighborhoods transformed by the drug, and warned of a coming wave of "crack babies." Meanwhile, instead of treating the issue as a public health emergency, politicians instituted sentencing guidelines that punished users of crack more harshly than users of powdered cocaine.

"It was originally 100-to-1, meaning that you got essentially 100 times the amount of [prison] time for crack than you would for the same substance in powder form," he says. "That was reduced to 18-to-1 around 2010. But it still exists. With all that we know about crack, with all the compassion that we have now for addicts, we still haven't moved far enough to eliminate that disparity entirely."

Interview highlights

/ One World
One World

On the government's role in allowing cocaine into the country in the 1980s

We had ongoing efforts in South and Central America, in countries like Nicaragua, where we wanted to support rebels, known as Contras in Nicaragua, to overthrow their government. That was in our political interest. But Congress would not allow the U.S. government to fund a war in another country. So the U.S. government got creative — and this is well documented — through programs to actually deliver weapons to the Contras. And when that was no longer feasible, when that became exposed through Ollie North in the whole Iran-Contra affair, we just allowed them to smuggle drugs.

And so a lot of those drugs, cocaine, ended up in the United States. And this has been investigated by a commission led by John Kerry, by efforts led by Maxine Waters. It's well documented through reporting at the time that there were lots of Contras that were selling cocaine to the two dealers in the United States. And a lot of it ended up in cities on the West Coast, in Oakland and in Los Angeles.

On how the anti-drug campaign spearheaded by Ronald and Nancy Reagan vilified drug users

They helped to fund the partnership for a Drug Free America, which produced lots of those really memorable commercials like the scrambled egg [PSA ad]: "This is your brain on drugs." And there also was a real campaign to ask Hollywood directors and writers to send their scripts to the White House for approval, ways of working in anti-drug messaging. This is how you get Nancy Reagan on an episode of Diff'rent Strokes. This is how you get Jesse on Saved by the Bell saying, "I'm so excited. I'm so excited. I'm so scared," because she's hopped up on speed. ... This is the birth of the "very special episode." And we have them to thank for that.

Look, I'm a kid of the '80s. I remember so much of that messaging. ... It didn't really teach me anything useful about drugs. What it really did was just made me deathly afraid of drug addicts. It made me keep people who I even suspected of being drug addicts — the average houseless person on the street — so far away from me because I was terrified that they were just these zombies that were out to get me and to get me hooked on drugs. It made them untouchables. ... I think that many people will will try to credit Nancy Reagan and the "Just Say No" campaign and DARE and all that stuff for ending the drug epidemic or the crack epidemic. There's no evidence of that. But I do think there's lots of evidence that the propaganda made us not understand addiction in ways that we're still paying for.

On the myth of the "crack baby"

A researcher named Ira Chasnoff in Chicago did one study of a handful of Black mothers who were cocaine users. And what he found after those mothers had given birth was that many of their babies had things like tremors and low birth weight, and they sort of struggled to meet benchmarks in their infancy. And from that, he published a report about cocaine-exposed babies that then launched what became this "crack baby" notion. And lots of reporting was done about these irredeemable babies, mostly Black and Latino children, and how they were going to be a huge weight on society, that they would sort of never be able to come back from what their mothers had done to them.

Charles Krauthammer, a columnist who was writing for the Post at the time, said that death would have been more suitable for these babies than to actually live. And what we've seen through the research, longitudinal studies of cocaine-exposed babies, was that ... the symptoms that Chasnoff were seeing were actually related to premature birth. [Read more on that reasearch here.] That the effect of cocaine is that it can cause complications that then lead to premature birth, and that the tremors and the developmental things that were being seen in infancy were actually associated with the babies being born early, and not necessarily with the cocaine exposure. And then, decades later, there is no measurable difference between those children and their counterparts, children born at the same time raised in the same areas with the same sort of resources. So I say that to say that the "crack baby" myth has been debunked.

On how the "crack baby" myth impacted all Black children

For me, as a Black child growing up in the '80s and '90s, I was treated as though I was a suspect of being a "crack baby," that the ways that teachers treated me and really other Black children in my classes — mainly Black boys — was as though there was something fundamentally wrong with us that we needed to be maybe medicated to be able to be in class, or that any challenge that we presented as students, whether it was talking too much, which was my problem, or if it was not being able to sit still, that that was evidence that something was wrong with us.

On crack providing a way for members of the Black community to escape poverty

I hadn't really considered this when I set out to write the book because in my family, drug dealers had really kind of always been villainized, even though I had relatives that sold drugs. ... For the average, usually young, man, someone like Shawn McCray, who I write about in my book, is that you saw people who had walked holes in their shoes, whose families struggle to pay the rent, be able to provide basic necessities to have some piece of what maybe felt like the American dream. Not most drug dealers got rich, not most were kingpins ... or super predators who were out to get kids hooked on drugs and who were eager to get into gun battles in the middle of streets. Most of them were terrified for their lives. But it was really the only way that they could make money in a period where unemployment was so high, and Black youth unemployment was even higher. And anybody that's been a Black teenager trying to find a job understands just how frustrating that can be.

On how the crack epidemic came to an end

let's celebrate the fact that the crack epidemic is over. Let's celebrate the fact that we survived it without a whole lot of intervention from the government and that it was young people who made the decision to not continue the trend.

The crack epidemic ended not because the drug warriors rode in on white horses or because Nancy Reagan said, "Just Say No." The crack epidemic ended because the next cohort of young people who would have used crack looked around at their communities and saw the devastation and said, "Not for me." And I think a really important thing to underline, is that .. we didn't celebrate that. So let's celebrate the fact that the crack epidemic is over. Let's celebrate the fact that we survived it without a whole lot of intervention from the government and that it was young people who made the decision to not continue the trend. And that's not according to me. That's according to research by the Department of Justice, where they surveyed the hardest hit cities around the country and interviewed young people and said essentially "Why? Why aren't you doing crack?" And they said, "That whole world is too scary."

On the difficulty of telling this story

In covering Black America, I've also had to cover a lot of tragedy and hear a lot of traumatic things from people. And I had always prided myself on being able to kind take it in and to process it and turn it into something beautiful and meaningful and not be affected. But after five years of putting together this book, I was completely wrecked. I lost 40 pounds. I had a heart tremor where I was getting palpitations and had to wear a heart monitor. Every loud noise scared me. My nerves were completely shot. ...

I had to take seriously what had happened and what had happened to the people that I talked to, and how seriously impactful those events were in their lives and how the stuff that I went through impacted me. I was a kid having to get down on the ground when I heard gunshots. And that was just a normal thing: You're in the middle of play, you hear gunshots, you get on the ground, you get back up and you keep playing. Having my first bike stolen by a crack addict and the fear of having to go home and explain that to my mom, that I had given somebody my bike to fix and he never came back with it. That stuff lived in me and it needed to be excavated.

I want to say that that I'm doing much better now, including having gained the weight back, unfortunately. But I think the message from that for me is that lots of us that lived through that period, we still have some stuff that we have to deal with. We need to ask our family about that aunt or uncle who kind of disappeared and nobody talks about. We need to first learn their stories, then lift their stories up as a part of our stories. ... We won't heal until we make sense of the crack epidemic — not as this aside, but as a part of who we've been and what we've been through.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.