Episode 2: Making Crack
Intro (Narrated by Joe)
Last week, in episode one, we mainly discussed how the politics of the 60s and 70s set the stage for the War on Drugs of the 80s. If you haven’t listened, we recommend that you check it out. Not just because we spent a lot of time making it, but because each of these episodes are collectively pushing us towards some important lessons.
In the spring of this year, ESPN released OJ: Made in America. It’s a five-part documentary series that, at its core, is about OJ Simpson and the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman in 1994. But for all the time the series spends discussing the murders and the trial, it puts just as much effort into explaining what made the case so nationally contentious - OJs supposed transcendence of race and his history of being domestically violent as well as the racial tensions of the late 20th century. Last week we talked about the urban uprisings of the mid and late 1900s - well in Los Angeles , where Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were murdered, there was also the brutalization of Rodney King, other consistent unchecked abuses by the LA Police Department, and the tragic murder of Latasha Harlins. All of these things framed a trial that was already steeped in racial overtones.
Without understanding the context behind it, you can’t fully grasp the societal significance of that case. Since we’ve seen how important background information can be, this week, we’re going to finish painting the context behind the story of crack cocaine and the war on drugs. But first, Prasanna has to answer the question I asked at the end of episode one.
(By the way, OJ definitely did it).
Chapter 1 (Narrated by Prasanna)
In Episode 1, we talked about how, near the end of the Civil Rights Movement, there was a rise in this idea that Black family structure was flawed. Sociologists documented an increase in divorce rates, mother-led households, and welfare dependency within the Black community after World War II, and they used this data as evidence that there was something inherently wrong with Black families. This was a time when nuclear families were considered the core of American society - a male breadwinner and a female caretaker were supposedly necessary to raise well-adjusted, non-criminal children, fully imbued with quintessential American values. The fall of the family would lead to a corrupted culture, the theory went.
With the publication of the Moynihan Report in 1965, this critique - of the Black family and Black culture - entered mainstream discourse. The ideology was modified and then spread by conservatives, who cited cultural deficiency as proof that racial inequality was self-inflicted - not a societal failing. They attacked the welfare programs of the War on Poverty as perpetuating laziness, allowing a “culture of poverty” to not only exist but flourish. Notice the phrase used here: culture of “poverty” - not culture of “Black America.” It became politically unsavvy, after the Civil Rights Movement, to directly incite race-based critiques, so politicians and the media started using coded racial language, popularly known as “dog whistle politics”. Key phrases that originated from this era, including “tough on crime,” “culture of poverty,” and “welfare queen,” which were used to signify racial undertones without explicitly mentioning race. The fact that more white Americans lived in poverty than Black Americans, and that more white Americans benefited from the welfare system than Black Americans, speaks to the racially coded force of these phrases.
In the 60s and into the 70s, conservatives began to evidence this poor culture as the cause for increases in urban unrest and violent crime. The culture-of-poverty thesis grew to dominate policymaking, and it provided the ideological basis for the “Tough on Crime” policies of the next 3 decades - from Johnson and Nixon through Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. The thinking went that, if we could severely punish those who committed crimes, we could deter crime altogether and redress the cultural afflictions of low-income Black communities - those who were good and hard-working would prosper and those who were lazy and criminal would be rightly locked away, unable to cause more harm. Law enforcement spending skyrocketed and the United States, by the early 90s, was incarcerating more people per 100,000 than any other country in the world.
The question we asked at the end of Episode 1 was, did this turn to more punitive law enforcement and incarceration work?
Of course, the answer to this question depends heavily on what you wanted to achieve. If you wanted America to lock up 2.3 million people and create the largest carceral system in the world, then yes - it certainly worked.
If you wanted to create a sense of police occupation in communities of color, it worked there too.
If you wanted to decrease crime - well here, the answer is no. Yes, crime did decrease in the 90s, but it wasn’t because of our turn to law enforcement. A report released in 2015 by the Brennan Center of Justice at the New York University Law School makes this clear. According to this report, of the decrease in crime during the 90s, only 5% can be causally attributed to a rise in incarceration rates. Even worse, the report says that none of the drop in crime during the 2000s resulted from mass incarceration. According to that same report, increases in policing only caused somewhere from 0 to 10% of the crime decrease. So, even by the report’s most generous estimates, only 15% of the drop in crime can be attributed to increases in law enforcement and incarceration. The real source of the crime decrease, the Brennan report claims, is a “web of factors,” varying from income growth and decreased unemployment to changes in alcohol consumption and an aging population - none of which have much to do with incarceration at all
Far from just failing to decrease crime, mass incarceration may have bred it. One of the most obvious ways it did that was by preventing those with criminal records from getting gainful employment. I’ll let Monica Cannon, a community worker here in Boston, explain.
Monica Cannon: The issue with CORI is that if you have a criminal record, and an employer asks that question on an application and you answer yes, usually you don’t make it to the next segment of the interview. Now they’re not allowed to ask, but if they do find out you have a CORI, they’ll still deny you the position and give you a generic reason as to why. The issue with that is that, okay, if i’ve done something as a seventeen year old, and it was deemed a felony, and that has followed me, and i’ve changed my life, and i’ve no longer gotten in trouble, i’m still not allowed to be a productive citizen. So then it’s almost like an oxymoron to say hey, change your life and do better, but you’re not giving me the opportunity to do so, based off my past. And it’s not being able to move forward.
And so, what i think needs to be done, aside from the whole, quote, unquote, CORI reform law, is that there needs to be something in place to ensure that there are actual employers that will hire these people, given the fact that they have CORI. I think we’ve come a long way because there are employers that will take a chance, but there needs to be more. Because the fact is that even if they’re not discriminating against you on your CORI, they’re discriminating against you based off how you look. And so it’s like you’re fighting a double battle, wherein you counterparts don’t have that battle at all
The other way this policy failed - really, the greatest way that it failed - was that it never truly closed the socioeconomic gap between Black people and white people. Racial disparities, in so many areas, remain almost as stark as they were during the Civil Rights Movement.
We’re about to bombard you with stats, so get ready.
In 2010, the average white household made $17,000 more than the average Black one.
Gaps in unemployment and household income between White Americans and Black Americans remain virtually the same as they were in the 1960s.
As of 2010, white families, on average, have 13x more family wealth than Black ones
In 2011, the Black poverty rate was at 28% versus 10% for whites.
This list goes on and on. And not one of those stats mentioned the disparities in our criminal justice system (which would take about 3 episodes to fully address).
There’s really only one conclusion we can draw here: our turn to law enforcement as the arbiter of social policy failed. Law enforcement didn’t solve crime, and it exacerbated racial inequality at an immense human cost - a cost that would have been too great to pay, even if there was evidence that these policies had any demonstrable impact on crime. In communities searching for solutions to a number of race-driven social and economic challenges, this type of law enforcement is not and never was the answer.
As for the broader argument - that Black culture is flawed, and in some ways, responsible for the inequality we continue to see today - that’s as misguided it sounds. Outside of being based on incomplete data and faulty logic, it exonerates Americans from the responsibility of 350+ years of abject racial discrimination, and it shifts the burden to individuals and communities most disenfranchised by this discrimination . And by the way, this is still how most Americans think. According to a Pew Research Poll from 2014, 63% of Americans believe that African Americans who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition, that racial discrimination, historic or contemporary, has little or nothing to do with it. The cultural argument has not only permeated mainstream discourse, it is the foundation for the way most people view race in America.
To understand the failings of the cultural argument, we have to go back to the Moynihan Report. There’s one glaring logical fallacy in the report that sort of debunks this entire theory. Moynihan correctly points out that divorce rates and welfare dependency within Black communities were rising at the time the report was published. He says the reason for this rise is Black male unemployment, and in a memo published later on, he calls for a nationwide, government-funded employment plan as the solution. But Moynihan’s report is titled “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” not “Black Male Unemployment: A Case for National Action.” And in the report itself, Moynihan never mentions a national employment plan, or any sort of policy measure, for that matter. The point being, despite the fact that Moynihan recognizes unemployment, and further, what he describes as, “three centuries of injustice,” as causal reasons for the changes in Black family structure, the ethos of his report is that Black families - and in turn, Black culture - need to be fixed through national action. Not unemployment, which he himself identifies as causal, or any other causal mechanisms. Conservatives, during the 70s, were able to turn his preoccupation with the Black family into the cultural argument we see today.
As a rebuttal to this way of thinking, we hope to hold American citizens and policymakers accountable for their roles in creating a racially oppressive environment by comprehensively addressing the context behind one of the causal mechanisms of the social ills Moynihan identified - unemployment. Mid-20th century Black unemployment, stemming from long-standing discrimination and a changing economy, exacerbated existing problems and created a myriad of new obstacles that festered and, by the 1980s, set the stage for the crack cocaine scare.
Chapter 2 (Narrated by both)
So, in history class, you probably learned about the various waves of immigration into the United States throughout history. At the beginning, it was colonists coming from Western Europe. The Great Migration spurred perhaps the most profound demographic shift in the history of the United States - 6 million Black men and women, over the course of about 6 decades, moved from the rural South to the urban-industrial North. (Warmth 9) Urban Black populations, from 1915 to 1970, grew at unprecedented rates. In Chicago, the Black population was at 44,000 in 1910 - just 2% of the overall population. By 1970, there were over 1.1 million African Americans living in the city - nearly 33% of its population. Cities all over the North and West - from New York and Philadelphia to Oakland and Los Angeles - saw similar demographic shifts.
Migration is always driven by a vision of greater opportunity. The American Dream, for example, is sold as an opportunity to ascend social and financial ladders. But perhaps just as often, people migrate or immigrate to escape toxic environments. The Great Migration was largely a case of the latter, as poor Black Americans sought relief from the brutality and economic stagnation of the Jim Crow south.
But the North certainly did have its allure. Black newspapers like The Chicago Defender lauded life and opportunities in the North. While the North has always had its share of racism - both overt and institutional, there was some good reason for the hype. Poor Black Americans with little in the way of formal education were able to take advantage of the region’s booming manufacturing industries. By 1954, Black youth, the primary demographic of the Great Migration, were employed at the same rates as white youth.
At this point, the Black community in the U.S. had reached a very promising juncture. Employment prospects were strong, Black students were enrolling in school at record highs - a trend that would continue into the 90s, until there was virtually no difference in secondary school enrollment between Black and white students (Duster, Crack in America, 270) -, and the landmark Brown vs. Board decision in 1954 marked the first of many major civil rights victories over the next two decades. Things were looking up.
Yet, just thirty years later, as white youth unemployment increased only marginally, Black youth unemployment had quadrupled. (Employment and Training Report of the President, 1982).
We often view urban unemployment as a longstanding symptom of racial inequality in our country. But Black and Latinx people in our cities have recently suffered unprecedented levels of unemployment.
How does that happen? How do things turn so bad, so quickly?
To answer that question, we’re going to present to you an alternative to the Moynihan Report. It’s called, drum roll please…the Rajasekaran-Tache Report. Okay, so pretty much everything we’re going to tell you comes from the research of brilliant sociologists, which we had absolutely nothing to do with. But we did have to read and find a way to re-explain their theories, so hey, that’s something.
So, the first part of the report, the “Rajasekaran” half, is about how, by the mid-20th century, at the dawn of an economic revolution, the Black lower class was left in an increasingly precarious position. This begins with Great Migration itself, the effects of which are numerous.
In sociology, there’s this thing called Blalock’s racial threat theory. It explains that, in response to rising minority populations, majority groups will be increasingly motivated to discriminate against these minorities. We see examples of this all throughout the world - most recently in Europe with the increase in African- and Arab-Muslim populations.
In the mid-20th century, in response to the Great Migration, northern whites had a racialized reaction to the growing Black population, and began to double-down on already harsh discriminatory practices. Much of this was achieved through housing discrimination. Northern whites successfully restricted the residential options for Black people in urban centers through a variety of methods including “targeted violence, restricted covenants, redlining, and racial steering.” (Tolnay 221)
This discrimination was exacerbated by what sociologist Stewart Tolnay calls an occupational queue in Northern cities. Even before the Great Migration, Black people were restricted in their employment opportunities, situated at the end of the queue. As the northern Black population skyrocketed, the queue expanded, even though job opportunities remained few and far between.
“White flight” - the mass exodus of white people from Northern cities to the suburbs - was also influenced by the Great Migration. The result was a deterioration in predominantly Black urban communities as white wealth and political clout moved away from these areas.
This isn’t to say the Great Migration was bad - it gave Black Southerners living under a racialized caste system in the Jim Crow South a means to make a better living for themselves. And many of these migrants undoubtedly succeeded. (Warmth) But the white reaction to the migration - a race-based nationalism that fostered severe discrimination against Black people - along with the demographic strains it caused led to the creation of a severely vulnerable urban Black lower-class. And with the structural change of the American economy in the mid-20th century, from manufacturing- to service-based, that vulnerability was exploited, leading to an eruption in Black unemployment, particularly among youth.
Now, here comes the Tache half of the report. Take it away, Joe.
Okay, this is going to be a lot, but bare with me. In the 20th century, the auto industry, and specifically Ford, became a major employer of Black Americans in the Detroit-area. Then, between 1945 and 1957, Ford, Chrysler, and GM, the US’s “Big Three” in the auto industry, built twenty-five new plants in metropolitan Detroit - but none in the actual city itself, where the Black population was the most concentrated. A few years later, in 1965, President Johnson and the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, signed the Canada-United States Automotive Products Agreement.
The nitty gritty of the agreement is pretty dense, but here’s what you need to know: to eliminate some of the barriers to trade and production between the US and Canada, the pact created tax incentives that motivated American auto manufacturers to move the vast majority of their production operations to Canada.
In the five years after the pact was signed, Canada’s auto industry went from trading at a deficit - importing nearly $620 million worth more of auto products than they exported - to trading at a surplus of $200 million. On top of that, American auto-manufacturers were required to increase their production in Canada each year, in order to retain the tax incentives, thus moving more jobs away from U.S. cities like Detroit. Bad news for Black communities that had already seen troubling industry trends in the two previous decades.
Other US industries followed suit. Increased global imports, the introduction of automated technologies, and the ability to outsource manufacturing to workers in other counties contributed to the declining prominence of US manufacturing. While absolute manufacturing employment numbers did not begin to decline until around 1990, industry employment stagnated in the mid-to-late-20th century, even as the US population continued to spike.
Still, this doesn’t quite explain the spike in unemployment among only Black and brown youth. Even though Black Americans were historically the largest demographic of workers in production jobs, the US as a whole was known as a manufacturing economy. And though we’ve had our ups and downs over the past sixty years, the deprioritization and subsequent disappearance of manufacturing jobs didn’t ravage the national economy in the same way that it did Black and brown communities. Just as manufacturing evolved from a dying agricultural economy at the turn of the 19th century, we began to shift towards a service economy in the mid-1900s.
In a chapter of Crack in America, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at NYU, Troy Duster argues that herein lies the problem - where manufacturing employment has been relatively equal across races since the 50s, service sector employment has not. This is a bit of an issue, given that the service sector now accounts for about two-thirds of US economic activity, and no signs point to that changing any time soon.
Duster offers a couple of reasons for why Black Americans in particular have had much less success in the service sector. The first is good old fashioned American racial discrimination. To this day, Black Americans may struggle to find employment simply on the virtue of being Black. A 2003 study in Boston and Chicago found that job applicants with “Black sounding” names are fifty percent less likely to receive interview callbacks than those with “white sounding” names. Black applicants with “higher quality” resumes hardly fared any better, and organizations who are self-identified as “equal opportunity employers” are no less likely to discriminate. Point being that if active discrimination is so prominent in the 21st century’s job market, we can only imagine how it manifested in the mid-to-late 1900s.
Duster also points to what he calls a “Lack of fit” between clashing cultures and expectations, due in part to the increasing cultural and educational segregation that we mentioned earlier. As whites and middle class Black families left cities, so too did their businesses and tax dollars, deteriorating inner-city revenue bases and leaving public education systems in shambles.
Duster argues that these extreme levels of segregation incubated distinct sociocultural differences between poor Black and Latinx youth and the financially secure whites who were hiring. The service economy is unique in that it requires more direct contact between both employees and supervisors, and employees and consumers than a manufacturing economy ever did. Differences in language, values, and style became harder and harder to avoid in an environment of increased interaction.
These differences made Black and brown youth even less desirable to service sector employers, and those same youth felt disrespected by expectations for them to suppress who they were. Typically, those young people were unable to access union representation, or any other form of collective resistance. Okay, you’ve earned a little break from narration. Here’s Michael Curry, President of the Boston NAACP, who we introduced last episode:
Michael Curry: What that says to me is it now validates when I walked around Roxbury as a kid and I saw all those Black men literally standing on the corner because they couldn’t get into the trade unions, they couldn’t become carpenters and pipe fitters and masons. Because the jobs were for the union folks and the unions were not allowing people of color in. There were some unions that were - housekeeping unions, of course across the country there were segments of healthcare workers and so forth that have a long history of allowing diversity, but many of the unions were denying access, and quite frankly, arguably, they’re denying access today.
We also introduced T. Michael Thomas from the People’s Academy last episode. He told us that even if people of color are technically allowed in unions today, they may still be discriminated against.
T. Michael Thomas: And it all started with the unions. The hiring practices, or lack thereof of the hiring. And it was always, you go to different job to job, and there’s no people of color. Or one or two. If they’re on a job, they’re either pushing a broom, or some type of a labor, but none of the skilled trades you would find people of color.
The implication of all this is on two levels - first, racism has clearly made it difficult for young people of color to find gainful employment in our new economy. But it also ensures that many of those who manage to do so will feel and be unprotected in their jobs. And that’s the Rajasekaran-Tache Report. But we don’t want to leave too much room for unproductive interpretation here, so we have more to cover.
There’s one thing I want to say really quickly here, before we move on. We’ve spent pretty much this entire episode talking about high-level academic theories that bounce back-and-forth between sociologists, sometimes manifesting in mainstream political discourse, and sometimes, even, influencing policy. By presenting these theories, we’ve attempted to paint a socioeconomic backdrop for Black and brown urban life after the Civil Rights movement. But the view from the ivory tower, however comprehensive, is still distant, incapable of providing a truly intimate view of these realities. So, for the final part of this episode, we’re removing our wire-rimmed glasses and leaving the hallowed halls of academia.
What do you do when you’re in your late teens or early twenties, poor, and deemed unemployable by people who, in reality, have little understanding of who you are and where you come from? You need to eat dinner, rent is due next week, your shoes are falling apart, and maybe your mom needs help supporting your little siblings. And honestly, maybe you want some of the luxuries in life that you’ve never been able to afford. What are your options? What comes next?
Chapter 3 (narrated by Prasanna)
Andrea James: So all of these things that we don’t give to people in poor communities, and particularly poor people of color, because we don’t as a people, as a nation, believe that those other people have value. That they’re somehow less valuable than other folks. And we’ve got to change that. But those are the other issues that are very much a part. A lot of it is what led people to deciding to sell drugs, they’re just trying to get access. They’re not drug kingpins, most of the people in this community, if they’re selling drugs, they ain’t making millions of dollars. They’re making rent. They’re making diapers.
So....crack cocaine. That’s what we’ve said this project is about, that’s what we’ve come here to talk about. We needed the last episode and a half to set the stage, and now we’re here: on the verge of the introduction of crack into urban communities.
First things first, what exactly is crack? When crack became a “thing” in the 1980s, it wasn’t actually a new drug, but a new form of an old substance. Prior to the 80s, powder cocaine was a high-priced drug, popular among affluent Americans. By the turn of the 80s, the price of cocaine began to drop, largely because of an increased supply. Cocaine is easier to inconspicuously transport than bulkier, more odorous drugs, like marijuana (Duster 281), and some shady government behavior, which we’ll get into later, opened the door for higher quantities to be imported into the states. As powder cocaine became more readily available, suppliers discovered that cooking a mixture of powder cocaine, water, and baking soda creates form of the drug that provides a more intense, but shorter high - crack. Whereas powder cocaine is difficult to sell in fractions of a gram, crack provides a viable way to do so. A “rock” of crack only contains about one-tenth a gram of powder cocaine, with the rest of the rock being air and baking soda. Going forward, cocaine could now be sold in small, cheap amounts. A rock went for $5-10, rather than the 100 - 200 dollars grams of powder cocaine were being sold for.
Pair the demand for an affordable, effective illegal drug in low income communities with an unprecedentedly large pool of unemployed young people, and you get what Troy Duster calls an “underground economy.”
Michael Curry: What does that mean though, right? If you’re a young man or woman and you want nice things. You want a nice car, you want to live in a nice house, you want to be able to take your kids to Disney, you want to do those things and you can’t find a job other than jobs that really are for young kids. Are jobs that pay barely minimum wage at that time, and now you got an opportunity to run this from here to across the street, down the street, and make a crapload of money - I don’t care what color you are, and I don’t care what country you’re in. You’re going to find people to do that crime. Because it is about access to good things and survival, right? We tend to downplay the fact that you want to feed your family, you want to provide. And sometimes the lack of opportunity drives people to provide in the wrong way. That is definitely our story, and it doesn’t mean that most Black people did it, or Black and brown people did it. It just means that a significant segment of our community found that as a legitimate option, a little contradiction of terms, but a legitimate option to pay their bills, and to get nice things, and to take care of their homes and their families. That’s unfortunate, and again, it speaks to the lack of opportunity. What are the social determinants of violence? What are the social determinants of addiction? It’s despair, it’s lack of opportunity, it’s lack of access, it’s not having a job, it’s not having hope.
That was Michael again. You’re going to hear a lot from him for the rest of this episode.
But one major consequence of an underground economy is the absence of a formal channel for mediation. If your dealer sells you a diluted product, you can’t take him to a civil court. If a competitor encroaches on your customer base, there are no unions to mediate disputes. If your supplier tries to extort you, calling the police isn’t an option. Without those formal solutions as options, violence often becomes the language of control. We’ve seen evidence of this historically, with bootlegging during alcohol prohibition. Similarly, the survival of the crack cocaine economy is inextricably tied to violence - the scope and implications of which we will address, but not quite yet.
Is it right to sell drugs to people suffering from addiction? Is it right to use violence as a tool of business? Maybe, maybe not. The complexities of each individual situation make it hard to break them down into binaries. But talking about that morality would be dishonest if we don’t also talk about the moral failings of a society that incentivizes actions it simultaneously condemns.
Andrea James: Poor people have to eat too. Everybody has to eat. Poor people too. And poor people care about their families and they love their children. Just like, I don’t know if you guys have children, but all the rest of us who do, if we had our backs to our wall and we have hungry children, or we’re about to be evicted, or we’re losing our apartments, or we’re losing our homes - whatever the situation is we’re gonna do what we have to do. That’s anybody, will do that. And so, this wasn’t different.
That was Andrea James, from the first episode. Later on, we spoke to Jeremy Thompson, someone Andrea affectionately calls her “adopted son.” Jeremy works at a place called Haley House:
Jeremy Thompson: Well Haley House is a nonprofit organization that has been established for fifty years right here in Roxbury, South End community. So since 1966, this building has been standing there as a living community, a soup kitchen, a food pantry, and clothing drive. And after hours you can have alcoholics anonymous, narcotics anonymous meetings, several other things happen there throughout the day.
Coming together as one. That’s my belief of what a community can and should be. So when you walk into haley house, it accepts everybody. Gay, Black, straight, white, Puerto Rican, trans, whatever you are, we accept you as you are. There’s no judgment. As long as you have a good heart, I mean, that’s the basis, that’s the foundation of being an extended member of this community, is just having a good heart and just caring for people.
The highlight of our day is when people come in for lunch and we interact, and it’s a bustling environment, and you get to see this melting pot of people come in, and you feel the energy in a space where everybody’s just recognizing people for who they are and where they are. And that’s the greatness of this place.
Jeremy manages Haley House’s transitional employment program, which employs formerly incarcerated people as they transition back into their communities, while providing them with additional supports to help them succeed. But we’ll talk about Haley House later. Right now, I want to talk about Jeremy.
He grew up in Dorchester. His mom became crack dependent when he was young, and he says he essentially had to become his household’s matriarch when he was seven years old. Before he even went to middle school, Jeremy felt the weight of needing to take care of his siblings.
Jeremy Thompson: As a juvenile, you know, i was out playing basketball, and during this time, i was gang involved, and sold drugs, and was still raising my brothers and sisters, and the life that i led, led me to carry guns on me all the time, and while i was playing basketball, i had two guns on me. And police, i believe it was operation rolling thunder, or something like that, where they would just roll around to neighborhoods and search people without probable cause. And that’s what they did. And i was only 14, 15 at the time.
Jeremy - the same guy who’s now dedicated his life to working for his community and spoke to the human power of the Haley House - ended up spending time in juvenile detention with Massachusetts’ Department of Youth Services, and later, due to a series of confrontations with a childhood friend whose own story painfully highlights the failures of our re-entry services, served time as an adult.
This is a good reminder that when we talk about crack cocaine throughout this series - addicts, dealers, and any other people whose lives have been touched by the drug, we’re talking about human beings. Not fiends, crack heads, or thugs. People. It’s apparent that Jeremy is a great person as soon as you meet him. He takes time to joke with and check-in on everybody he passes in the Haley House cafe, which I’ll admit was a little inconvenient for the purposes of an interview. But it’s immediately clear that his work is precious to him. When you look at how our country’s evolution positioned Jeremy and other young men in his community, the path to a lot of these decisions that poor, young people of color are often condemned for isn’t difficult to see.
Now, what Michael Curry was speaking to earlier is important because those social determinants - lack of access, lack of opportunity, et cetera, can factor not only into people’s willingness to sell drugs, but also people's’ willingness to use. I’ll let him explain.
Michael Curry: People dealing with racism - you’re dealing with all the other things that everyone else is dealing with, but on top of that, you’re dealing with oppression. You’re dealing with being told that your skin color is not good. And if you’re Black, you’re dumb, and you’re not as smart as, and you can’t work at a certain place, and you can’t be a doctor, a lawyer. You open up a magazine and beauty doesn’t look like you. I think no one can accurately diagnose what happens over generations to a people that have been trained to hate themselves. And I think that’s a given, that’s factual, and that’s from slavery through, really some would even argue through today. Just open a magazine or turn on the news and see what the image is of Black men and women. So I think that layer, that overlay of racism has not helped. So drugs is a vehicle for money, a vehicle to get away, and quite frankly, like other communities, we’re susceptible to those things and our communities were devastated by it.
For people dealing with extreme stresses, drug use can serve as an escape. We spoke to Haywood Fennell, someone who has lived in Boston for nearly forty years.
Haywood Fennell: My name is Haywood Fennell, I was born in New York City and raised for a little while in a little town called Wilmington, North Carolina, which is on the coast of North Carolina. And I spent, after discharged from the military, I spent a lot of my time in New York City with my wife and children. I’ve been living in Boston since 1978. I am an educator, and I’m involved in advocacy work for veterans, as well as ex-offenders. I’m a graduate of UMass Boston, class of 2010. I’m also an ex-offender who refuses to allow his past to dictate his future. I am involved in several programs around education and the need for alternative options for our children to avoid future incarceration.
Prasanna: So do you have experience specifically with Boston law enforcement
Haywood Fennell: I have an extensive history on that, but not in the last 20 years. That history has to do with my getting discharged from the military in bad emotional state and my inability to deal with the issues that I had to deal with in order for me to be able to stand on my own two feet. So what happened was, I became involved, became addicted to heroin and I was in and out of prisons for some time.
Haywood didn’t have personal experience with crack cocaine, but his story can resonate with those who have ever used a substance as an escape. It resonates with Mary Curry, Michael’s sister. She’s has been in recovery from using crack and a few other substances for twenty six years now.
Mary Curry: If you went through some of the things that i’ve been through - people use because people… even as a child, people drink liquor because they didn’t want to feel. It was easier to come outside of myself. Easier to say some things or easier to do some things.
Michael wanted to bring up a clarifying point about what we’re discussing.
Michael Curry: It’s funny - not funny in a haha - but funny in terms of analyzing this stuff, addiction is addiction. No matter what race, color, national origin, creed, no matter what you are you are driven to drugs by the same reason. It is experimentation, it is a progression of drugs, and trying things out, it is self-medication, whether it’s alcohol or marijuana or crack or meth, people are trying to find out how temporary or long term to get away from the turmoil, trial, and tribulations in their lives. So that’s universal no matter where you are. I think there’s another element, when you are Black or Brown, particularly in our communities of color, we lived in communities where quite frankly truth is catching up to history and drugs were allowed in our communities, that there wasn’t as much of a focus by government, by law enforcement to prevent drugs and guns from coming into poor neighborhoods.
So none of this is to say that white people don’t use and sell drugs as well. Like Michael touched upon, they do, they always have, and often at greater rates than people of color. It’s not that crack created a unique environment simply because people of color in cities were buying and selling drugs. That was happening with other drugs, across all demographics, across the country. Crack was so unique because it was largely concentrated in impoverished Black and brown neighborhoods in major cities, and the environment we’ve spent the past two episodes explaining heavily influenced its impact and the ensuing response.
In the wake of Nixon’s unceremonious fall from grace, a wounded Republican Party sought to once again impose “traditional family values” on public policy. But this take on policy was distinctly different from the ethos that swept the country during Johnson’s administration, which held family above all else. This new ideology, spearheaded by Ronald Reagan, viewed social ills as the consequences of individual moral choices. Whereas Moynihan viewed social troubles as symptoms of weak families, Reagan’s Republicans of the 80s - and soon Democrats as well acted upon human troubles as if they were results of “individual deviance, immorality, or weakness.”
America’s adapted moral code was on a crash course with crack cocaine, and Americans of color were standing right in the middle.