I was a college student in Baltimore when crack first surfaced on the streets and quickly became the drug of choice for the addicted. Cheap and accessible, crack infested the West Baltimore neighborhood, one of the city’s most crime-ridden, where I was living at the time with several of my fraternity brothers. For several years after I graduated, and when I served as an aide to a Black mayoral candidate, it was clear the drug was taking a toll on the Black community as addiction and crime soared simultaneously. It was a horror show that resembled a zombie apocalypse as human beings were literally rendered lifeless by this powerful derivative of cocaine.
What was also evident was how politicians, initially President Reagan and his fellow conservative Republicans, manipulated the crack explosion by claiming a “War on Drugs” that was really a war on Black people. The push for tougher drug laws included mandatory minimum sentences and policies like “three strikes and you’re out” that gave license to law enforcement agencies across the country to target young Black men and populate the nation’s prisons with the addicted rather than treat the addiction. In cities across America police were knocking down doors in Black communities searching for elusive crack dealers and trying to cleanse neighborhoods of dope fiends. A compelling narrative of “crack babies” was postulated as evidence of the scourge of the crack epidemic. The visual of a nation under siege combined with the seemingly harmless message of First Lady Nancy Reagan to “Just Say No” provided cover for the criminalization of Black men in America.
All the blame cannot fall on the shoulders of Republicans. For their part Democrats, fearful of being cast as soft on crime, are equally at fault for what resulted from a misguided and ill-intentioned criminal justice approach to drug addiction. It was the Clinton administration that advanced a crime bill that contained onerous provisions, such as differential sentencing for crack and powdered cocaine that unleashed the mass incarceration of Blacks, and mostly Black men. And many Black leaders, some shocked by the devastation they were witnessing in their neighborhoods and others simply too partisan to raise objection, joined hands with President Bill Clinton in condemning a generation of Black men to the criminal justice system. In an August 16, 1994 press release from the White House, a long list of African-American clergy endorsed the Clinton crime plan, calling it a “crusade.” The signers included leaders of the AME, AME Zion, CME, United Methodist and Church of God in Christ denominations, as well as the National Baptist Convention and prominent state leaders and individual clergy.
All of this is important background to understand that who is addicted in America is what really matters. Contrast the criminal justice approach to the crack epidemic to the more cerebral reaction we are witnessing to the rise in heroin use. Celebrity deaths from heroin like that of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman glamorizes addiction and allows the media, and subsequently the public, to view the drug use as a source of personal tragedy and not a criminal act. Clearly, some will attribute the more compassionate response to heroin addiction to the lessons learned from our wrongful and malicious strategy when crack surfaced in our cities. I can’t be that generous. It is the race of the end user that has driven public policy on drugs and the public’s value judgment on who is worthy of being saved and who is disposable and should be banished from society.
The new focus on heroin should hopefully force many elected officials and journalists to question drug policy in America. Our nation endorsed a harmful approach to crack addiction and dealing that did not just harden the approach of law enforcement but equally hardened the attitudes of Blacks toward the police and the criminal justice system. The relationship between Blacks and police has never been built on trust, and from the Black perspective there is sufficient evidence to support that suspicion, but the criminalization of Black men during the height of the crack wars created a whole new level of mistrust in the Black community. We were not afforded a ‘kinder and gentler’ approach to drug addiction as we see being heralded with heroin; rather, there was a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ mentality that destroyed tens of thousands of Black men and did long-term damage to their families.
While Black people don’t want to see their neighborhoods overrun by crime spawned by the drug trade, as we see in gang activity across the country, we also want the same compassion for the Black addicted as we witness for whites who tragically succumb to drugs. What has occurred in the past is the exploitation of Black anger over crime and violence by political forces whose intent is not recovery and healing but instead demonization and criminal convictions.
At the heart of the drug trade, crime and gun violence in the Black community is economic deprivation and social abandonment. Rather than getting tough on crime our nation needs to get tough on inequality and racism. We understood that for a brief moment in history but the movement toward justice and equality was derailed by a more determined force intent on preserving the second-class status of Black Americans. If we are serious about curtailing the collateral damage inflicted upon Black Americans by the drug trade then we must find the compassion and the moral fortitude to confront the systemic forces that fuel the underground economy. After all, who is addicted should not matter. Death is an equal opportunity offender in the drug trade.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @WFields.