The advent of the devastating drug in the form of crack cocaine on black communities in the United States of America still has long-lasting effects. Previously, there had been few instances of (powder) cocaine in black neighborhoods because of its high price. But the cheaper version of this cocaine, called crack/crack cocaine went rampant in black communities and orchestrated a deadly war on life.
The crack epidemic in the United States, mostly in the inner city neighborhoods (low-income residential districts in the US) left an aftermath of destruction socially and economically. The most affected by the crack epidemic which took root in the early 1980s were African Americans. It was cheap and offered an instant opportunity at money for young black males who came from poor families. Crack cocaine is highly addictive, it has a quick euphoric effect and by then the trade of crack cocaine was hugely lucrative.
Addictions, deaths, drug-related crimes (robberies, aggravated assault, homicides, etc.) and extremely harsh prison sentences destroyed African American communities in ways never seen before. Families were torn apart. Young black males who were brimming with potential had their lives wasted to drugs and long prison sentences. Young women with a vast reservoir of potential too were damaged by crack.
Crack cocaine is made by the conversion of powder cocaine into a smokable form, a rock, and sold in smaller portions, but distributed to more people. The crackdown had entered the US by the beginning of the 1980s, but it was only in 1985 that the term “crack” began to feature in mainstream media. Cocaine entered the US via the Caribbean countries – Dominican Republic and the Bahamas – straight to Miami and many other major US cities. Cocaine had flourished in vast amounts, and the prices were now dropping.
With the demand for cocaine ever spiking, a cheap, easy to make version came up – crack cocaine. Caribbean immigrants taught adolescents the technique and art of converting powder cocaine into crack cocaine (by dissolving powder cocaine in water, adding baking soda, and heating).
And other cities got it too. New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia among many became the epicenters in the business of producing and distributing crack cocaine. Everyone could afford cocaine by that time because of crack’s luring affordability.
The popularity of cocaine was due to its cheap prices, (and big profits for the drug dealers) and its instant euphoric effect which made customers chase for more crack – which is also known as “chasing the rock”. Street gangs rose to infamous prominence and that meant a lot of blood was spilled on the streets as gang violence surged. Violence rose because of how small-time drug dealers, under the control of gangs, defending their territory.
Street gangs, being the logical sellers of crack, controlled outdoor spaces. Gang violence became the primary means of establishing and maintaining property rights. The “economic investments” could not be defended through legal means, and street violence was the only way. The intense competition for the same customers in such a highly profitable trade brought despair to African American communities.
The violence created a merciless cycle of murder. Lives were cut short. The life expectancy of young black males heavily dropped, compared to the young white males. The homicide rate for black males aged 14-17 more than doubled between 1984 and 1994. The homicide rate for black males aged 18-24 also increased as much between that same timeframe. The social disintegration that came with this left a huge toll on black communities in the United States. The enticing profits presented by selling crack compelled many young black males to resort to the trade of cocaine, shunning educational investment. This was all exacerbated by how narrow opportunities were for black people.
With its highly addictive nature, crack cocaine was a major driver of dysfunctional families. Young women turned to crack, as much as the men did. With parents unable to properly fend for their families because of being addicted to crack, some children ended up in foster homes. Unborn babies suffered too – pregnant women would consume crack despite the adverse negative effects. This resulted in low birth weight babies and fetal deaths. Crack addicted fathers and mothers failed to create conducive home environments and that led to dysfunctional families. As drug dealers and addicted customers were arrested, many children were left without adequate parental support.
The area where African Americans were prejudiced the most is reflected in the sentencing disparities when it came to selling crack or being in possession of it. The crack epidemic came during Ronald Reagan’s reign as president of America and he kept a firm stance on the “War on Drugs” instituted first by Richard Nixon in 1971. The laws that were crafted to deal with the crack epidemic that mostly affected poor black neighborhoods carried racist undertones that were hard to ignore. The laws dealing with the scourge of crack cocaine were motivated by White fear of black people – the fear that had shaped many other legislation pieces on drugs, from heroin to marijuana. The laws were also inspired by stereotypes about black people that Congressmen and the media pushed.
In 1986, the United States created laws (most notably The Anti-Drug Abuse Act) aiming to ebb the tide of crack cocaine. These laws created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the possession or trafficking of crack as compared to that of powder cocaine. Minority groups such as African Americans and Hispanics had access to crack cocaine since it was cheaper than powder cocaine. Powder cocaine was more prevalent in affluent communities. Sentences for crack cocaine were harsher than those of powder cocaine. This meant that the minimum sentence of 5 years was for 5 grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine. The discrepancies were glaring and resulted in prison populations doubling, teeming with African American prisoners. Non-violent drug users ended up serving disproportionately long sentences.
This method on the War on Drugs targeted small-time dealers who often came from impoverished backgrounds. The arrests of drug dealers and their customers did not give the War on Drugs any victory. One in every four African American males aged 20 to 29 was either incarcerated or on probation or parole by 1989. In 2012, 88% of imprisonments from crack cocaine were African American. Society had turned to the criminal justice system to evade obvious racism. Racism became embedded in the criminal justice system, with emphasis on the War on Drugs. Countless minor drug violations attracted heavy prison sentences.
Increased police brutality meant more injuries and deaths on black men, women, and children. The African American community was assailed by the crack epidemic due to how these people were criminalized, being portrayed as villainous, dangerous, problematic, and harmful to society. Upon being convicted, a drug felon lost access to voting, housing, and employment opportunities. Whole communities were ravaged because of the barbaric reaction to the problem of drugs. Instead of treating these people with dignity, the scorn they were given did little to stop the flow of crack cocaine on the streets. Dealing with the problem of drugs commences with compassion for the end-user.
The crack epidemic was supposed to show American policymakers that arrests are not the way to deal with the problem of addiction in society. The causes that drive people into drugs – whether selling or consuming them – come from a place of despair. Drugs are not about race. They affect everyone, as America, and the whole world at large is now seeing.