Episode 4: Name It
Intro (Narrated by Prasanna)
Last week, we talked about the hysteria surrounding crack cocaine in the late 1980s. To give you a refresher on what it was like back then, here’s Kurt Schmoke, who came out against the War on Drugs when he was the Mayor of Baltimore during this time.
Kurt Schmoke: Yeah, the environment was very hostile. To the point that one elected official called me the most dangerous man in America. That was a bit of hyperbole, but I did get a lot of criticism. And every time our crime, particularly our homicide numbers were going up in Baltimore, a number of congressmen would take the floor and say, see, Schmoke is wrong. His rhetoric is encouraging crime in Baltimore. So it was certainly a very toxic and hostile atmosphere.
From this environment, we got the ‘86 and ‘88 anti-drug abuse acts: the two pillars to American punitive drug policy.
But here’s the thing - those laws never explicitly said Black and brown people should be punished more harshly than white people. Those laws never specified race-based mass incarceration. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. The federal drug prison population skyrocketed, and communities of color received the brunt of that increase. Here’s Andrea James, from families for Justice as Healing.
Andrea James: I knew this as a child, I saw the difference in the young people using drugs at Milton and the people who were using drugs in my community, I saw the different trajectory that those wealthy white kids were sent down. That they were sent to rehab in some expensive, faraway place, and came back and never skipped a beat and went onto Yale, and Northeastern, and Harvard, and all these other elite schools. And I saw the very different trajectory of young people in my community who went to juvenile system and then onto prison for the very same thing.
Many Americans believe that, with the progress of the Civil Rights Movement, America finally became a country no longer defined by racism. That racism still pops here and there - but in no way is it a part of our national fiber. Well, if Donald Trump hasn’t debunked that theory, then we will today.
In this episode, we explore contemporary racism in the context of the crack cocaine scare. Our first stop? The American Judicial system.
Chapter One (Narrated by Joe)
If you’re listening to this podcast, I’m gonna guess that you’ve heard of The New Jim Crow. One, because it’s a nationally best selling book, and two because we mentioned it last week - It was written by law professor Michelle Alexander, and it finally opened the floodgates for earnest mainstream conversation about mass incarceration. In one section of the book, Alexander details just how sneakily problematic our courts have been. She identifies two main culprits - first are prosecuting attorneys. All due respect to them, but that probably doesn’t surprise you all. But second is the honorable Supreme Court of the United States. I highly recommend reading The New Jim Crow, but either way, today we’re gonna share part of professor Alexander’s perspective as we delve into our court system.
First, I want to play you some clips from an interview we did with a guy named Adam Foss. Adam worked for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office - that’s here in Boston. To start things off, we asked him what he thought of the War on Drugs.
Adam Foss: Uh, an abject failure. Just a complete charade. I grew up in Pepperell, Massachusetts, but I spent a lot of time in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Lowell was the crack cocaine capital of Massachusetts for a while. So I saw the degradation, even in my own family, of crack cocaine. And I knew when I was like eight, that these people weren’t criminals. But it was particularly acute when I was a prosecutor, why am I prosecuting this person for possession of crack? It’s like charging a person to have diabetes. And then I met people who were selling drugs, and I was like, you’re just as bad as a drug addict. You’re selling drugs to get drugs. Why am I charging you like you’re Scarface? This is ridiculous.
Yeah, Adam thinks about the law a little differently than you might think a prosecutor would. He explained to us that he decided to be a prosecutor because of the powers he got by “prosecutorial discretion.” Huh?
Adam Foss: So the prosecutor is the person who is responsible for deciding who to charge, what to charge them with, how many counts of that charge they’re going to charge, then they make the decisions about whether or not to request bail, and a lot of that determination relies on all of the other decisions they’ve made. So if you’re charged with one count of assault and battery, your bail is likely to be different if you’re charged with three counts of assault and battery and a count of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. All decisions a prosecutor makes.
So the bail determination is ultimately in the hands of the prosecutor, and then on the other end of it, it would be easier for you to go to trial or to plead out on one charge of assault and battery, but if you have a bunch of charges against you and some of them are mandatory minimum sentences, again a decision by a prosecutor, I’ve used all that power. And I can make decisions about that power throughout the continuum.
A defense attorney has none of that decision-making power, in fact, a defense attorney is almost always asking someone for something else.
Okay, so here’s where Michelle Alexander comes in. She’s captured just how dangerous prosecutorial discretion can be. She wrote about how in the 90s, Georgia enacted a “two strikes and you’re out” law. Hold on, they have a baseball team down there, don’t they know it’s three strikes. Well, in any case, the law imposes life imprisonment for people convicted of a second drug offense - even simple possession. But District Attorneys, the prosecutors, could basically decide when to, and when not to, seek this charge, without having to justify their reasoning. Like, they could honestly just flip a coin if they didn’t tell anyone that’s how they made their decisions. Thing is, if they did flip a coin, the results would have been a lot more equal than they ended up being And thus, of 1995, it was invoked against 1 percent of “eligible” white defendants and 16 percent of eligible Black defendants.
Adam Foss: Everybody hears minimum mandatory sentences and they think, well everybody's hands must be bound - no, no, no. That is only, that’s a charging decision the prosecutor makes, binding everybody else’s hand except for the prosecutor. And so, bringing that to its logical extreme, you think of everyone who goes to jail because of minimum mandatory sentences, but also think about the number of people who avoid minimum mandatory sentences by taking either a shorter sentence or a probationary sentence, again very much dictated by the prosecutor, and failing on that probation, and then going to jail because again, we’re sort of just putting this person on probation without addressing a lot of the needs that brought them there in the first place.
It’s a well-established fact that not only minimum mandatory sentences, but most aspects of the criminal justice system disproportionately affect people of color. So that needs to be a part of the calculus, and reforming the system is really looking at that.
That was Adam again. Remember Keith Jackson? The high school student we told you about last episode who got set up to sell crack to DEA agents so that George HW Bush could make a point? He was one of the many victims of this discretion. Once the prosecutor in his case decided to seek that mandatory minimum charge, the judge was stripped of all power in sentencing. And because mandatory minimums are so threatening, plea deals became a key tool for prosecutors in the War on Drugs. Carl Williams is currently the Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, but for years before that, he was a criminal defense attorney here in Boston. Many of his clients had to decide between going to trial at the risk of being sentenced to a decade or longer in prison, or taking a plea deal.
Carl Williams: I always explain it to people who don’t know, it’s like putting a gun up to someone and saying, ‘your money or your life.’ Because if someone says, ‘look you’re gonna go to jail for ten years,’ and if i told you right now, i said, ‘look, the crime that you’re charged with has a 15 year mandatory minimum.’ And you knew that you had a 50% chance, so a pretty good chance, 50% of beating that case. But I’m your lawyer and i say, ‘hey look, they’re talking about a deal. And you can plead it two to three.’ Mathematically, like a logic professor will tell you you should take the deal. But you say, ‘I’m innocent, I’m fully innocent!’ I’m like, but 2-3, mathematically, anything under half is a logical choice.
The problem is, when you take a plea deal, you’re admitting guilt. In many drug cases, someone who takes a plea deal becomes a felon. So while technically your sentence is shorter, that label follows you for the rest of your life.
Carl Williams: And that’s why I use the your money or your life example, because neither of those choices are good. When people are charged with drug charges, almost all the time, people, that people’s relatives or whoever they live with in public housing is thrown out of public housing because of federal law. That is, I mean I’ve talked to clients that have said, ‘look, i don’t care if i go to jail for two years, if my grandma has to, we’ve lived in Bromley Heath for seventeen years, if she gets thrown out, she doesn’t have anywhere to go. Everyone she knows it there. She can’t get around, people help her. That is her life.’ And i think those consequences, so, housing, sometimes access to loans, less than people think, but sometimes access to loans, also there are other consequences that people believe are the case. A lot of times people in Massachusetts, they believe they cannot vote, which isn’t true. But they think it’s the case, so actually it becomes a reality.
So voting, sometimes barber’s licenses, hairdresser’s licenses, CBL - drive truck licenses, licenses to drive a car or a motorcycles, so any of these sort of Uber and Lyft and other new economy things, those very easily can be off the table if you have drug convictions. And I mean, that’s just a very, very short list.
And best believe civil rights advocates of the 80s and 90s didn’t take all of this lying down. Remember Alexander Lynn from episode one? He’s been an activist in the city for a long time, and during the 80s, he was part of a group called Free my People. They did some work pushing back against the criminalization of drug use and addiction.
Alexander Lynn: We participated in the treatment on demand campaign, which was a really - that was one of the first in the country. We brought 2,000 addicts down to the statehouse. You know “addicts.” Drug addicts, criminals, street people… no, 2,000 people came to the statehouse and said we’re dignified human beings, we need treatment on demand. Addiction is a disease. It’s not criminal.
During the late 20th century, a flurry of criminal justice-related cases were brought to the Supreme Court - challenging various laws and practices as being racially discriminatory. The Court’s decisions during that period essentially closed the door to making legal claims of racial bias across every stage of the criminal justice system - policing, sentencing, jury selection, and prosecutorial discretion (Alexander 139).
Once again, I highly recommend reading The New Jim Crow for more information about these cases, but we’re going to highlight two important examples that Michelle Alexander detailed.
What might be the most critical Supreme Court case in the War on Drugs actually didn’t have anything to do with a drug violation. It’s McCleskey vs. Kemp, Warren McCleskey was facing the death penalty for killing a white police officer in Georgia. McCleskey challenged this sentence through the 8th and 14th amendments - little US government lesson here… the 8th amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment, while the 14th is basically the civil rights amendment - one of those passed in the wake of the civil war. So McCleskey argued that Georgia’s death penalty was racially biased, thus violating his constitutional rights. And a study led by a Professor named David Baldus supported this claim - he analyzed over 2,000 murder cases in Georgia, finding that defendants charged with killing white victims were over four times more likely to be sentenced to death than those charged with killing Black victims. But the Court rejected this systemic evidence. They decided that unless McCleskey could prove racial bias in his particular case, he couldn’t make claims of racial discrimination. With this decision, the Court allowed for an society in which a legal system could be racist, but no individuals could be held accountable for the disparities unless they openly admitted to intentionally acting discriminatorily. And we know how eager people are to label themselves as racist these days. So the impact of the McCleskey case reverberated throughout the criminal justice system and had a profound impact on the War on Drugs. Legal challenges of discriminatory sentencing and prosecutorial behavior were all shot down because of the case.
Okay, keep McCleskey the back of your mind as we move onto Armstrong vs. United States, where the Court took their position one step further. In 1992, an LA drug task force raided Christopher Lee Armstrong’s motel room. The officers found crack in the room and arrested Armstrong and his companions on federal drug charges. As the case progressed, Armstrong’s lawyers hoped to prove that federal crack laws were racially enforced - in the 53 crack-related cases they had handled in the previous three years, none of the defendants were white, even though the majority of crack users were. The federal government helped Armstrong’s case by providing a list of over 2,000 people charged with federal crack violations over a three-year period. All but 11 were Black, and again, none were white. The defense team suspected that prosecutors transferred white suspects to the state courts, where punishments were much less harsh. They weren’t beholden to those Anti-Drug Abuse Acts we talked about last week. But to prove this suspicion, Armstrong’s team needed access to the prosecutors’ records to find out how many white defendants were transferred to the state system. To nobody’s surprise, the prosecutors didn’t want to release those records. When this case reached the Supreme Court in 1996, the Court ruled that because Armstrong’s team could not identify specific white defendants who should have been charged but were not, their claim wasn’t viable. Yeah, don’t try to make sense of this, it’s as weird as it sounds. Essentially, the Court demanded that in order to get access to the information he was seeking, Armstrong already needed to have access to that very information. The Court’s justification for this confused logic loop? They didn’t want to restrict prosecutorial discretion, which they saw as a key cog in the justice process.
In McCleskey v. Kemp, the Court made it nearly impossible to make any legal challenge of bias or discrimination without evidence specific to that case, even if there is strong, broad evidence of discrimination. In Armstrong vs. United States, the Court made it nearly impossible to obtain that evidence.
But while those cases explain how prosecutors are able to discriminate without repercussion, they don’t explain why prosecutors choose to do so.
Chapter 2 (Narrated by Prasanna)
Rickey McGee: Policing prejudices, stereotypical notions that fuse into policy or effectively “police” the inner city. All of these different institutions that are now magnified based on what occurred during the mid 80s, early 90s have to be looked at and examined.
In 1989, Carol and Charles Stuart, a white couple, were driving their car through a neighborhood called Mission Hill. According to Charles, as they were driving, a Black man forced his way into their car at a stoplight, robbed them, shot Charles, and murdered Carol, who was pregnant. The frontpage of the Boston Herald the day after the murder displayed a horrific picture of Carol slumped over, Charles badly injured. That scene the city into a frenzy - the powers that be desperately wanted to find the killer and bring him to justice. Mayor Ray Flynn issued a statement that demanded the Boston Police Department to be “extremely aggressive in cracking down on people,” for them to use “every lawful tool” in their disposal.
This meant police occupation of Mission Hill. Cindy Diggs, a pro-peace activist from the area, remembers how bad it was.
Cindy Diggs: It sucked. I mean, i grew up in the neighborhood that it happened in. So i had just moved closer to that side of the hill. I grew up on the top of the hill and moved over to Huntington Avenue, and i could hear the police sirens every night coming from the projects. And i had siblings that were still hanging out in the projects, and they told people how they had pulled over, like strip searching people in broad daylight. Girls that were being searched.
A Boston City Councillor said that the situation was reminiscent of Vietnam.
Cindy Diggs: One of the stories i heard, they cut open people's’ mattresses and never replaced the stuff, and just destroyed property. Broke down the community.
So, after raiding and occupying Mission Hill, the BPD surely found their man, right?
Wrong. The murderer was not a Black man, like Charles Stuart indicated. The murderer was not even from Mission Hill. Who was the murderer, you ask? It was... Charles Stuart - he shot his wife and then shot himself to make it look like a carjacking. When you look into the evidence of the case, this isn’t even surprising. According to people who knew Stuart, he was unhappy in his marriage and upset at the prospect of becoming a father. One friend even claimed that Charles asked him for help in murdering Carol. And yet, the BPD only figured it out when Charles’ brother turned him in.
So the Charles Stuart case happened in 1989 - the absolute height of the crack scare. The Stuart case is illustrative of the racial dynamics that plagued the country during this time. Broadly, white Americans were deemed trustworthy, credible, and if something questionable happened, victims of wrongdoing - in other words, the way everyone should be treated. Black Americans, on the other hand, were perceived as untrustworthy - inherently criminal. Remember, this fit with the portrayal of crack addicts by the media - as lazy, violent, and Black.
Implicit racial bias is something you may have heard of; it’s basically this idea that we make subconscious judgments about people based on their race. Implicit racial bias explains why Boston acted as it did during the Charles Stuart case - implicitly trusting a white men at the expense of a Black community - even though the white man was guilty of murder. Now, the Stuart case was over 20 years ago, but this implicit racism still exists today.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander cites many studies on implicit racial bias - racial bias that is subtle, beneath the surface. One such study asked people to envision a drug user - 95 percent of respondents imagined that person to be Black. Another had people watch a news story about a crime - most people falsely recalled seeing an image of the suspect in the story, and nearly three quarters of those who did imagined the suspect to be Black. Yet another study asked subjects to look at images of people and determine if they were armed or unarmed - people in the images were either holding a weapon or a harmless object, like a wallet. Subjects were more likely to mistake an armed white suspect as unarmed, but an unarmed Black suspect as armed. (Alexander 105)
Dr. Kevin Drakulich, a criminologist at Northeastern University, has studied this idea of implicit racial bias. Here’s how he explains it:
Kevin Drakulich: There may be some people out there that have biased feelings but know it’s not socially acceptable to express them anymore, even in the context of a survey. Even in the context of an anonymous survey, they may know that the right answer to that question is “no of course I like black people just as much as I like white people.” There may also be another group of people who have automatically activated reactions, negative reactions, along racial lines, even though they’re not totally aware they have these reactions, even as these reactions influences their behavior. So the person who gets uncomfortable and crosses to the other side of the street when they realize the guy behind them is black and not white. They’re not necessarily thinking consciously “oh it’s a black person, i’m going to move across the street.” But they have this automatic feeling that’s a little bit negative and a little bit uncomfortable and it influences them to walk across the street, even though they never thought “Oh, he’s black, I need to walk across the street.” These implicit measures have the opportunity to tap into both of these kinds of things.
We asked Dr. Drakulich about the implications of his research.
Drakulich: One of the major factors explaining diversity of opinions among whites is racial animus measured both explicitly and implicitly. Those with greater implicit racial animus towards blacks are more likely to view crime as one of the biggest problems facing our society. They’re more likely to minimize economic inequalities between blacks and whites and say “Hey, that’s a problem of the past. We mostly got rid of that.” They’re more likely to blame poverty and crime on the individuals themselves, rather than the social context. If someone’s gone to prison it’s because they did something bad, rather than they grew up in a bad neighborhood. Whites with racial animus are much more likely to hold those views. From a policy perspective, they’re substantially more likely to oppose policies that ameliorate social inequalities. So affirmative action and anti-discrimination policies. And they’re much more likely to support harsh criminal justice policies that we know are applied in racially uneven ways that disproportionately affect blacks. There’s a wide range of policy opinions and how people understand the problems overall, understand economic inequalities, racial inequalities, understand crime, understand our criminal justice system. All of that seems influenced by their degree of racial animus towards Blacks.
So clearly this cultural racism, this implicit racial bias, is pervasive in our society. It affects everyone, to some extent, because of the way we’ve conditioned ourselves to talk about and view race. So the question is: why would we expect officers, lawmakers, lawyers, and judges,
who are products of our society, to leave racial bias at home when they go to work?
We asked Adam Foss if he saw bias on display during his time as a prosecuting attorney.
Adam Foss: What I can tell you from my almost ten years on the job and traveling around the country and knowing a lot of prosecutors and meeting a lot of prosecutors, again it’s not this sinister thing, it’s a collateral effect of really bad practice, really uniformed people going into a line of work that’s really, really important. That they want to do right, and because they're left to rely on what they come to the office with, a lot of that is just implicit bias, and it’s not just white people. The studies show that a black prosecutor is just as likely, if not more likely to discriminate subconsciously against another person of color. So it’s something that we all need to embrace and talk about, not to blame people, not to judge people, but to say this is an issue that we have to deal with. Let’s deal with it intelligently, so that we stop doing that.
We also spoke to Rahsaan Hall about this issue. He’s currently the Director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, but he once worked at the DA’s office, like Adam. Rahsaan built upon the point Adam is making.
Rahsaan Hall: The problem is when that culture runs unchecked it begins to inform people’s perceptions and understandings and value and then when you impose or when that is also influenced by implicit bias, racism, and the framework of white supremacy it becomes very problematic and you see these gross disparities in who gets held on bail and how much they’re held on and for how long they are held or for what sentencing recommendations are or the way that certain communities are policed as opposed to others.
We often talk about unchecked culture in the context of one group of people. A culture of racism among police officers or among elected officials. In reality, none of those cultures exist in a vacuum. They’re linked together, and they work together. We got this idea from Carl Williams, so we’ll let him explain.
Carl Williams: I have a whiteboard behind me and I’d like to be drawing on it right now, but this is radio, this is audio. If you think of a line. So something happens or something doesn’t happen. Like two human beings interact someday, one of them punches someone, one of them takes someone’s cookies, whatever the hell happens. The police are called. The police respond. The police interact with those individuals. The police then make arrests, or they summons one of those people, or they don’t. Then that person is taken to a police station, they’re booked. The police write up a recommended set of charges, because the police don’t charge you, the court does. But they write, they say, ‘we think this person should be charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, assault and battery of a police officer, disturbing the peace, trespassing, assault with a dangerous weapon. They give that to the court. The court takes it, the court decides to issue charges usually, or decides not to issue charges. Those charges may involve mandatory minimums. They might add charges, they might take away charges. That person is arraigned, that person is assigned a public defender, that person, there’s some investigation, that person goes to trial, doesn’t go to trial, takes a plea, person’s sentenced, charged with time in jail, appeals, is on parole and/or probation, that person violates probation, they win their appeal or not win their appeal and then they’re done. In that line, there are so many decision points. And when you study each of the decision points, every one of them has this spin on the ball. That race plays a distinct role. That class plays a distinct role. But all of them are the, I’m saying the number sort of just at large, 10%. Each one puts that spin on the ball so that by the time you get to the end of the system, you’re like, ‘woah, I’m 200% more than anything else.’
It’s a snowball effect. Carl told us about the way people, even some defense attorneys, view his former clients.
Carl Williams: I think there’s this othering. And othering is a very, very easy way. It would be easy for me to say that there are these sets of people who are the problem, those people need to change. I don’t think that’s the case. And when i speak, i usually don’t try to point to that. Everyone in our society is responsible for the problems that our society has produced
And I would talk to interns or new attorneys and a lot of times people would say, ‘oh, my client did this stupid thing or my client did that stupid thing.’ And I would always say, ‘tell me something good about your client.’ If you can’t tell me something good, you’re not a very good lawyer.
I would hear people say, other lawyers say, ‘oh my god, client is such a pain, my client this and this.’ I’m like, because you don’t have a good relationship with them! This is the real world. If you go on the bus and you step on someone’s foot and then you turn around like, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ that person’s gonna be mad at you. If you go on the bus and you say, ‘oh would you like a seat? I’m sorry, my bag was on your seat. Why don’t i get up and you can sit down?’ That person’s gonna like you! They’re gonna be like you’re a nice person. And i said it’s not anything different with our clients, they’re not some kind of different set of people.
Carl was a defense attorney during the 2000’s. During the height of the crack scare, people working in the criminal justice system were hearing about the dangers of crack cocaine and drug-related crime every day from the media and elected officials. They were bombarded, with messages that told them to fear and distrust poor communities of color. They were then asked to preside over them. The mass incarceration of Black and brown people, then, should be expected.
Conclusion (Narrated by Joe)
Alright, so this all leads us to two big questions. First, is about that that bias we’ve been talking about all episode - we know our justice system in a lot of ways is defined by race. But was the introduction of crack, the War on Drugs, and this whole structure of mass incarceration a result of subconscious racial bias, or as many have claimed, a deliberate attempt to further control and oppress Americans of color?
Like nearly every other aspect of the War on Drugs, the introduction of crack into poor urban neighborhoods has borne a healthy dose of conspiracy theories. We asked Dr. Reinarman, again, one of the authors of Crack in America, about the possibility that crack’s appearance in the US originated from a government conspiracy.
Craig Reinarman: Well there’s a story from a journalist out here, in my neighborhood, who worked for the San Jose Mercury News, named Gary Webb, and he was the one who broke the story on the CIA’s complicity in the cocaine trade. There really was never any doubt that the CIA was, in effect, in bed with all kinds, they call ‘em contractors, but basically they’re marriages of convenience with all kinds of shady, sometimes organized crime-involved outfits. This was one of those cases where they’re trying to do something very illegal that blew up in Reagan’s face: the Iran-Contra affair. They’re trying to illegally and on the sly ship arms down to the right wing death squads and other goods that were trying to shore up the conservative regimes in Salvador and the Contras who were trying to find the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. So they did this by bringing these sort of illegal, disguised private contractor planeloads of weapons, uh, from the United States, into Central America. And then they just, sort of, you know, the planes got filled up with cocaine on the return trip and the CIA looked the other way. At the very least, they looked the other way. Gary Webb wanted to connect the dots in a more causal way and that’s where he started to get in trouble. Because it’s very hard to prove unless you have a smoking gun or a photograph or something or you can crawl inside the head of the CIA people. But there was no doubt that the plane was returned with a large shipments of cocaine more than once. They came into LA - but that’s a very crucial detail. Because Gary Webb’s claim was that this is what fueled the crack epidemic and that it was perhaps a conscious strategy to further oppress the black community in south central LA. This is sort of easily debunked with logic because there were lots of other American cities that had serious problems with crack in the poorest neighborhoods where they didn’t have those big shipments coming in from Central America. All you had to have were people who were desperately poor with no shot at a legal means of making good living, and some people who were you know taking a drug that would make them feel better than they’ve ever felt before. Both of which types of people exist in large numbers in any inner city. So it wasn’t the case that the crack epidemic was caused by or launched by the shipments by the CIA contractors. Certainly that created some surplus supply of cocaine. But that stuff doesn’t really spoil readily. And it’s worth millions and millions so they’re going to take care of it. So it’s just stretched beyond the evidence. The evidence is bad enough.
So according to Dr. Reinarman, it seems like the conspiracy theories surrounding cracks introduction may be a bit of a stretch, but to be clear, there’s no consensus here. Dr. Reinarman mentioned Gary Webb, who, in a series of investigative articles and a book called Dark Alliance, slammed the CIA for conspiring in trafficking crack into Black US communities. Multiple people we talked to from around Boston stood behind Webb’s reports of the CIA’s complicity, including Alexander Lynn, the activist you heard from earlier.
Alexander Lynn: We were all over that. We didn’t know Gary Webb, he’s an individual. But we knew they were dumping cocaine in our neighborhood. That they invented crack. We knew this everybody knew this.
We asked Alexander how he was so sure.
Alexander Lynn: Okay, so 1985. Was three years before free my people was born. And the bank of Boston, which is now bank of America - the bank of Boston was fined by the federal government $500,000. Sounds like a tiny amount. For laundering $1.2 billion worth of drug money. They were caught… “caught” by their daddy the government. What happened was they were trying to take too much of a cut, so the government came in and went like this *slaps wrist*.
And if you look it up, you’ll find that the Bank of Boston was indeed fined in 1985. People point to other shadiness surrounding bank trafficking and Gary Webb’s downfall, but w e can’t exactly call that conclusive evidence of a conspiracy. Given our federal government’s blatantly insidious role in Black communities in the not too distant past (the FBI creating COINTELPRO to subvert activist, the US Public Health Service intentionally failing to treat Black men with syphilis in the name of “science”, etc.), I think a healthy dose of skepticism among Black Americans is probably wise. But we just can’t responsibly make a strong claim about the government’s exact role in crack’s introduction to the US - that would take a series of its own. And I need to be responsible on here so I can be irresponsible on twitter..
Okay so how about the actual War on Drugs? I think we can say this - In episode three, we walked through the fact that for many politicians, the War on Drugs was largely a political tool. In cycles of election-season one-upmanship, each of our two major parties identified tough on crime philosophies as the quickest way to certain voters’ hearts. In that game of chess our politicians played with the American people, how many millions of people of color - predominantly Black Americans - were used as pawns? Throughout the War on Drugs, politicians must have seen the immense harms inflicted by our punitive system, and decided that price of Black and brown lives was one that they were willing to pay. No matter how many lives it took.
Beyond that, the drug war is also murky. In episode one, we mentioned Nixon’s former adviser who claimed the war was an attempt to control hippies and Black people, and our government created monetary incentives for the expansion of prisons - allowing for the establishment of for-profit private prisons and creating financial incentives for local police departments to prioritize enforcing the war on drugs. Still, it’s hard to make a sweeping statement about the purpose of the drug war. Some of its supporters probably were driven by malintent, just as some were driven by a desire to address drug use in what they thought was the best way.
It’s always good to have a sense of intentions, but it’s not the end of the world that we don’t definitively know what was going on in the minds of the people who initiated the War on Drugs. Because whether through malintent, unconscious bias, incompetence, or indifference, our federal government, media, and courts, in large part, created mass incarceration and the crack scare, and in doing so fed our country’s unending hunger for white supremacy and racial inequity - that’s a fact and, regardless of whether it was intended, we have to deal with it.
The crack scare is the othering of people who need public health interventions. It’s the demonization of kids put in impossible situations. It’s the condemnation of entire communities. That runs deeper than crack, to the very roots of the United States of America. And this deeper, historical acknowledgment is so crucial. So important that I don’t trust myself to explain it. I’m gonna pass the mic to Carl Williams to explain it.
Carl Williams: An enormous amount of our foundational document, which people today, I hear people say this frequently, they say the united states constitution was the most perfect document that was ever written in all of history. Not super conservative people, people of different political stripes. And i say, but it’s substantially about owning human beings and creating an idea of white supremacy, that is unquestionable, right? There’s an enormous amount.
I actually just looked - the united states constitution is 4,400 words, about, without the amendments. About 425 words directly are about race, or about black people, or about slavery. The separation of powers isn’t that much. The first amendment isn’t even in that, that’s in an amendment, that’s an amendment to the constitution, it isn’t even in the body of the constitution. The right to vote is not in there that much. It’s arguably, by far, the single most important part of the constitution.
And someone said to me in response, you know, more moderate person said, ‘well, but that was the popular opinion of that time.’ I said, ‘Not among us. Not among us. Not among native people. And not among black people. And not among any other people who were in the country who were not white, christian men. Or who were not hypnotized by the idea of white, christian, land-owning, literate, christian men.’
And so I think that foundation, that DNA needs to be addressed. The after-effects of the idea that not - the fact that we were an enslaving country is a horrible thing. And is a blemish on the history of this country. But greater than that is the history of white supremacy that has never - it’s the religion that allowed enslavement. We got rid of the enslavement. That’s a lot of the leaves on the tree. But we’ve never addressed the religion. The core belief in this country that allowed it to happen, that it was created to make that happen. And we still have that.
Okay, at the beginning of this episode, we said that while tough on crime legislation was the framework for mass incarceration, it didn’t necessarily guarantee the disparities we see in the justice system today. Racism guaranteed that. And now we’re deliberately naming “white supremacy.” That’s a big term. We could’ve blamed poor race relations, that’s a popular one today. Or we could’ve used any number of other softer, more comfortable terms, as we in America often do. But it’s important that we recognize white supremacy for what it is. It is a West Virginia Attorney General Spokeswoman saying that diversity is a code word for white genocide. That’s real, feel free to look it up. It’s also a cop - a family man who goes to church every Sunday and whose best friend is Black - repeatedly pulling Black people over because they look suspicious for some reason he can’t quite put his finger on.
Michael Curry: We need blatant examples of racism. We need someone dragging from a car in Texas, or hanging from a tree, or some blatant n-word sprawled from a police department in Manhattan. We need that glamorous or in your face examples of racism, when racism is not mostly that. It’s much more subtle. It’s the company that won’t hire people of color because they think they’re not smart enough, but they don’t say that. You see it when you walk through the halls. It’s governments that don’t have diversity. It’s police departments that are predominantly white men. And the systems keep faces of color - men and women of color, and women, out of those law enforcement positions or those fire departments. It is Flint. It is lead in the water in communities of color across the country. It is still the disparate treatment. Disparate treatment by courts as documentation shows, if you’re black and brown and you go in our court systems, they treat you differently.
That was recurring guest, Michael Curry, from Boston’s NAACP. Racism manifests in ways that evolve over time and vary between contexts, but are all rooted in the same place. And contrary to what many prideful, Dunkin' Donuts-going, northerners often like to believe, it’s not confined to the South. Here’s Carl William’s colleague, Rahsaan Hall, who we introduced earlier, to sum that point up:
Rahsaan Hall: I think people like to rest on their laurels, they feel like, well, we’re not the south. We’re not racist Alabama or Mississippi so what do we have to worry about? We’re not like Louisiana that’s incarcerating a thousand people per hundred thousand. We’ve only got three hundred per hundred thousand. But we’ve got like nine hundred per hundred thousand on probation and people, there’s an overwhelming majority of people that are incarcerated that are coming off of technical probation violations not that they committed a new offense but they pissed a dirty urine or didn't show up to their probation officer’s office or something like that. And so i think people’s inability to see that because they think we’re not as a bad as somewhere else really is a roadblock. There’s no, in a lot of people’s mind, crisis. The fierce urgency of now has not visited these people’s doorsteps because in many of their communities and I'm talking largely in the suburbs, in the white communities they are not seeing the impact or the ripple effect of mass incarceration and then they think we’re progressive we’re a blue state, we passed-- we were one of the first states to legalize same sex marriage. We’re about to have this constitutional amendment for a millionaire’s tax so we believe in progressive values but when we bring the criminal justice system into the conversation and specifically the issues of race in the criminal justice system people say it’s easier to not look at the problems that exist here because it may blemish the image of their understanding of who we are as a commonwealth.
What Carl, Michael, and Rahsaan just told us is, again, also reflected by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, and, once again, it’s crucial to understand. Slavery didn’t breed white supremacy, slavery was made possible because of white supremacy. So when we defeated slavery but didn’t dismantle the power of white supremacy, we left the door open for more racist policies, like Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration, which Michelle Alexander coined as the new Jim Crow.
In hindsight, we can look at a number of our major post-Civil Rights Movement domestic policies - the War on Crime, the War on Drugs, welfare reform in the 90s, and we can definitively say that they failed to reduce inequities and improve the quality of life for America’s most vulnerable populations. Truth is, each of those policies were destined to fail before they were even proposed, when they were still just ideas in someone’s head, because each, at least partially, was conceived from incorrect, racist assumptions about Blackness, poverty, and culture. Social policies that aren’t grounded in the reality of America’s racial context will continue to exacerbate longstanding inequities, even if they aim to address real problems. We think that’s one of the clearest lessons of the War on Drugs.
So I mentioned that we have two questions. That was a long-winded answer to the first, and it leads us to our second, which is a doozy. The War on Drugs, for so many reasons, wasn’t the solution, but what exactly was the problem? Was the crack scare really a reaction to a dire issue? In other words, let’s step back and try to figure out how crack impact America, in reality? Find out next week on Colored.