1986 was a good year for music.
Patti LaBelle’s “On My Own,”
Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,”
Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,”
The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,”
Cameo’s “Word Up,”
Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” and
Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” were sensations.
Dionne Warwick and Friends sang the timeless “That’s What Friends are For.”
And on October 21, 1986, Janet Jackson released the empowering hit, “Control.”
Days later, on October 27th, President Ronald Reagan took another kind of control that disproportionately targeted and arguably tore apart families and communities that shared Jackson’s race by signing into law The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
1986 became the year when Black mothers were blamed for the crack cocaine epidemic.
As the nation faces the current opioid epidemic, why aren’t white mothers getting blamed for the crisis? What caused the United States to change our song and dance routine—our entire playlist for warring against drug epidemics? Is it as simple as learning from the past?
Answering these questions requires exploring how colorblindness, the notion that one does not see race, as expressed in the laws still serve as a way to create and maintain racism. It requires exploring the ways in which the colorblind narrative is used to prevent restitution to various People of Color. It invites us to revisit the intersections or class, race, gender and the subtle ways narratives are crafted along these intersections to promote systems of oppression.
In this post, I begin to explore these factors in my inquiry.
Colorblind and Racist Drug Laws
In their ACLU report, “Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law,” Deborah J. Vagins and Jesselyn McCurdy noted that The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986:
…established mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes and created a 100:1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. The Act provided that individuals convicted of crimes involving 500 grams of powder cocaine or just 5 grams of crack(the weight of two pennies) were sentenced to at least 5 years imprisonment, without regard to any mitigating factors. The Act also provided that those individuals convicted of crimes involving 5000 grams of powder cocaine and 50 grams of crack (the weight of a candy bar) be sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
Race was not explicitly written in the 1986 law. Otherwise, it would have been easier to combat it, such as in the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
Still, what makes this law racist? During the 1980s and 1990s, the United States experienced a rise in crack cocaine, which became widely associated with Black people, particularly in working poor urban communities. On the other hand, powder cocaine was associated with affluence and particularly, white people.
By heavily penalizing “crack” versus “powder cocaine” the federal laws targeted racial groups without naming it.
In their study, “Powder Cocaine and Crack Use in the United States: An Examination of Risk for Arrest and Socioeconomic Disparities in Use,” Palamar, Davies, and associates explained:
Compared to whites, racial minorities were at low risk for powder cocaine use, and Hispanics were at low risk for crack use. Blacks were at increased risk for lifetime and recent crack use in unconditional models, but this association was lost when controlling for all other socioeconomic variables. Therefore, it appears that blacks are in fact at higher risk for crack use and associated outcomes, but this may be driven by socioeconomic factors—suggesting that SES may be a fundamental cause of racial disparities in crack use. In the conditional models for lifetime use, higher educational attainment was associated with increased likelihood of powder cocaine use and decreased likelihood of crack use, and higher income was associated with decreased likelihood of crack use.
Despite socio-economic factors, for decades, Black people were tied to a narrative of crack cocaine and white people were linked to powder cocaine. In 2003, although over 66% of U.S. crack cocaine users were white or Latino, Black people made up more than 80% of the convictions under the federal crack cocaine laws (Vagins and McCurdy, 2006).
Structural racism in a colorblind nation looks like Black people serving as much time in prison for drug offenses (58.7 months) as white people convicted of violent offenses (61.7 months) (Vagins and McCurdy, 2006). The incarceration approach to the drug epidemic that was disproportionately enforced on African-Americans ruled the day until 2010, when President Obama changed the sentencing from 100:1 to 18:1.
Presently, as the nation deals with a drug epidemic that is not popularly associated with African-Americans, our government has miraculously seen the racial white light in their approach. Instead of criminalizing, targeting, and heavily penalizing people with opioid addictions with mandatory minimums, there has been a broader appeal to sympathy and treatment.
The narratives give a backstory where the people tend to come from “good” families who are victims of structures beyond their control—targeted by the “evil” large pharmaceutical corporations.
They receive reparations for their victimhood in the forms of taxpayer supported treatment and settlements against pharmaceutical companies.
Despite all of these changes and talk of treatment, Black people are still targeted with an incarceration approach.
Bad Black Mothers and Vulnerable White Girls
I recall a different narrative from the United States’ War on Drugs. I recall the media working over-time to dehumanize Black mothers and families crippled by drug dependency and the disproportionate over-policing and heavier penalties. The media helped shape a narrative to shame and justify the lack of empathy and investment in treatment/care.
Sensationalized media portrayals about Black mothers on crack given birth to a new generation of crack babies out of wedlock sought to reinforce stereotypes and controlling narratives of inherent cultural deficiency among African Americans.
Bad Black mothers and fathers who use and deal crack were a plague to society to be controlled and destroyed. One day, as I was watching television, I saw a commercial focusing on the opioid crisis about “Amy’s Story” from Truth Initiative. On their website, they share part of her story:
When Amy was 14, a knee injury on the soccer field put her in the hospital and resulted in a prescription for Vicodin. Over the next five years, she endured several surgeries on that knee and received a flood of opioid prescriptions.
In this vulnerable state, Amy developed an addiction to Vicodin. When her supply ran out, she took drastic measures to get more. She started relying on self-harm to secure prescriptions for opioids. She would cut herself and smash her injured knee. At age 18, she reached the peak of her desperation. In hopes of getting more pills, she intentionally crashed her car into a dumpster at over 40 miles per hour…
The framing of the story signals virtues by which Amy is worthy of treatment and care. Amy gets the benefit of being young and innocent that more easily happens for white youth compared to Latino and African-American youth. She played soccer, became injured, “endured” surgeries, and received a “flood” of highly addictive pain drugs in her “vulnerable” state. In other words, Amy was a “good kid” who was a victim to a system out of her control. She was not portrayed as a culturally deficient junkie from a broken home who needed to take responsibility and be locked away from society.
Was Amy heavily penalized for possible insurance fraud, reckless driving, and destroying property?
Where was the public service campaign featuring a 14-year-old African-American girl in the 1990s who turned to recreational drugs to numb her pain and stole property to generate money to buy more? She had to be responsible and not a victim.
Young African-American girls do not tend to get funded national media narratives about being “vulnerable” with a dominant narrative that inextricably connects Blackness with innocence, not until a social issue impacts white middle-affluent youth. The National Women’s Law Center found that Black girls in every state in the United States are more than twice as likely to be suspended from school than white girls, and it is not because they misbehave more.
Overall, Black girls are over 5.5 times more likely to be suspended from school ad 2.5 times more likely to be expelled without educational services than white girls.
To their credit, Truth Initiative shares stories of individuals from diverse backgrounds to show that opioid addiction can impact anyone. Also, they have committed to creating a culture where all youth and young adults live free of tobacco. According to their website, Truth Initiative’s “20 years of lifesaving work has prevented millions of young people from becoming smokers — including 2.5 million between 2015 and 2018 — and helped drive down the youth smoking rate from 23% in 2000 to 4.6% in 2018.”
Nevertheless, the stories selected seem to appeal to dominant White middle-affluent definitions of worthiness of empathy. For example, Truth Initiative features the story of Chris, who can be visually identified as Black and possibly male. He experimented with opioids as a teen, after discovering his mother’s prescription pills in her medicine cabinet.
Later, after being injured on a job, he became addicted. This narrative has more marketing appeal in a colorblind racist society, for one about an unemployed Black man doing drugs for the sake of fun becoming addicted will not bode as well.
Examples of other stories include diverse youth taking drugs to cope with the stresses of school and being an overachiever or developing an addiction after being prescribed opioid painkillers after an injury. These narratives make the opioid crisis something that is not inherently a white problem and justify the need to support a treatment (instead of a heavy-handed incarceration) approach to the epidemic.
By doing so, White middle and affluent class mothers are spared the over-sensationalized news reports of their poor parenting. White fathers are not deadbeats because their children become dependent.
They are victims just as much as their children.
These same kinds of humanizing stories about opioid dependency could have been promoted during the years of the crack cocaine epidemic.White mothers are spared from being essentialized by the media as broken sources of our social ills. They do not have to deal with the stereotypes of being welfare queens who give birth to crack or heroin babies.
Within a white supremacist society, there is a wrongfully assumed moral superiority connected the white race that denigrates certain Women of Color and uplifts white women in times of crisis.
A greater attempt exists to show that the opioid addiction is not a reflection of white cultural deficiency and that such drug dependence is not the result of some inherent racial flaw.
It is a fact that countless Black and Latino folks have been saying for years. When drug dependency was explained away on the flawed basis of our supposed cultural and even biological inferiority, numbers of people across race pushed back against the narrative to little to no avail.
Silence about the resulting racial devastation that still occurs from the racist approaches to handling drug epidemics further exacerbates the long-standing problem. Any person and organization dedicated to drug dependency and treatment have to contend with the deeply entrenched racist realities of how empathy and sympathy have a clear racial hierarchy in the social imaginations of U.S. individuals and enforcement of laws.
Many people might believe that we sympathize and empathize the same across race. The sad reality is that a blond hair teenage white girl who plays soccer will garner more empathy (and financial support) than an African-American teenage girl who drove her car into a dumpster like Amy to get more drugs.
Consequently, the use of Black people’s stories of drug dependency within this current colorblind framing of drug epidemics helps to further manipulate the greater public into ignoring decades of the adverse effects of racist drug laws and practices involving African Americans.
Is it just to pretend none of it happened? Is it just to ignore the long-lasting impact—the generational consequences? Is it empathetic to ignore that due to our racist drug laws and practices, that approximately twenty years ago, the United States had more Black men in prison than in college?
It is unsympathetic and unempathetic to point out these truths?
It is possible to empathize with individuals like Amy, Chris, and their families and simultaneously address and hold accountability the legalized oppression that has been long ignored and condoned by the much of society.
To put it bluntly, it is sleazy, uncaring, underhanded, and racist use empathy to turn this matter into choosing between either to focus on the opioid epidemic or the handling/residual impact of the crack epidemic. It is a low-down attempt to escape any accountability and is the same tired melody about how racism works in this country.
This matter is a “both/and” issue desperately begging for resolution.
Signs, Frames and Ibu-fu*%king-profen
I saw signs of the emerging opioid crisis and the changing language approaches to “drug epidemics.” Here and there, I noticed that even local law enforcement talked about the epidemic in different way-less war and criminalizing to a greater ethic of care. It was a change for the better, and yet it was not better.
When they discussed treatment approaches for one group, did they forget about the others they locked away after criminalizing their addiction?
Signs in the Suburbs
Years ago, I was in a southern city with my husband, waiting in line at a restaurant that was a local and tourist favorite. In front of us were a group of African-American women, all friends on a girls’ trip from another part of the state. As they laughed and talked, I slowly became part of the conversation.
Two of the women had careers in the healthcare industry. Their voices lowered in the way as if keep a secret from the surrounding white people. They began discussing their observations about the drug addiction and use back home.
The middle class and wealthy white youth and adults were increasingly being affected by the opioids “White kids in the suburbs were dropping dead,” as one woman put it. White people were growing concerned and now they are looking for ways to help and treat them.
The mood became heavy with something that was not being said-a history revisited each of us. 1986 never went away. This part of the conversation also became a social test, for the women gave each other knowing looks and looked at me to determine if I was a Black woman who “got it.”
I got it.
In that moment, there was this shared knowing, as one woman looked off.
Another shook her head.
Then, one of the women in medicine, gave voice to what we seemed to thinking and only expressing on our contorted faces and changed countenances.
“They didn’t care about treating us. They were locking us up. When it is a white kid in the suburbs, now there is government money for programs and treatment.”
By “us,” she means the Black community.
As for the “they”—Again, 1986.
My stomach tightened. I was noticing the rhetoric, and I had not talked about it with anyone, yet. I was wondering if it was just me—or my imagination, as I watched the gentle crafting and shifting of the drug addiction narrative in a way that garnered sympathy and financial support for white people and used the same appeal for sympathy to ignore years of lack of it towards African-American people.
The story of “learning from the past” to move to a treatment approach became a tool to racially whitewash a host of atrocities against People of Color.
I wanted my suspicions to be wrong.
She confirmed it.
Notice the Framing
Months ago, I was at a Midwestern health foods store chatting with a white woman, and the opioid crisis came up. Another white woman overheard us and joined the conversation. Her work directly engaged in the opioid epidemic. She pointed out her observations of the changing drug narrative and pharmaceutical companies’ practices from during her previous marriage to a doctor. As she expressed anger about the framing of the issue, she lamented, “I have seen this play out for years. You notice how they are framing it, don’t you? They start off talking about how the person had a medical condition or an injury, and then became addicted, as if the only people deserving of treatment are the ones who were first ill or hurt and (she signaled air quotes with her hands) had no control. It’s total bulls&*t!”
Recently, I watched Wanda Sykes’ Netflix stand-up comedy special, “Not Normal,” where one of her jokes pack a telling critique of the racial framing of the opioid epidemic and the lack of empathy for the pain of Black patients within the healthcare industry.
Sykes explains, “Black people— we don’t even get our hands on opioids. They don’t even give them to us.” She drives home the point with a personal experience, adding, “I had a double mastectomy. You know what they sent my Black a&* home with? Ibu-f*%king-profen!”
Sykes observations are backed by the personal experiences of countless Black people who have dealt with the minimization of our pain and symptoms when seeking medical treatment. Furthermore, research supports her humorous evaluation.
In their 2019 article, “Opioid crisis: Another mechanism used to perpetuate American racism,” scholars Carl L. Hart and Malakai Z. Hart similarly noted, “It has been well documented that physicians are even less likely to prescribe opioids to Blacks than to Whites. This type of racism contributes to health disparities, which will be further exacerbated by the current alarmist approach in dealing with opioids.”
Sykes, the women on the girls’ trip, and the women at the health foods store see through the colorblind smoke and mirrors. They recognize the reality.
Today, the treatment rhetoric has ramped up, along with government and increasing sympathetic public support. It is one that needs to be challenged to show how racism and classism are inherent in our care and treatment of people in this country.
Hart and Hart (2019) argue that despite the treatment rhetoric, current opioid crisis perpetuates the historical patterns of incarcerating Black and Latinos as higher rates:
More than 80% of those convicted of heroin trafficking are black or Latino (United States Sentencing Commission, 2018). As was observed with crack use decades earlier, most heroin users are white (Martins et al., 2017) and they most likely purchase the drug from someone within their own racial group (Riley, 1997). The discretionary nature of drug law enforcement, which continues to focus mostly on black and Latino communities, is basis for racial discrimination in heroin arrests. To put it in blunt terms, this means that the current opioid crisis is but one more mechanism to perpetuate racism.
Would the United States government lock up white teenagers, so that more of them are in prison than in higher education, and blame their mothers? Would the United States government create another War on Drugs and create laws to heavily penalize White people?
I doubt it.
Does the treatment rhetoric really extend to the Black and Latino families?
Closing: Both Accountability and Empathy
Now is a time for both accountability and empathy.
Accountability does not stop and start with large pharmaceutical corporations who produce opioids.
Accountability involves each person and institution who supported the criminalizing of crack cocaine use and the racist practice of crafting laws to heavily target and penalize African-American people.
Accountability involves each person and institution who showed little to no empathy regarding the drug dependency among African Americans and various People of Color over the years.
It calls for people and institutions to have a “come to Jesus” moment to confess and repent of their part.
True accountability calls for changing laws, policies, practices and willingly committing the financial resources to address the damage to and help restore Communities of Color.
If you think Black people need to get over it, tell every White suburban family who is dealing with opioid dependency in their families to shut up and get over it.
Neither response is acceptable in my great American songbook.
1986 was a good year for music, for blaming Black mothers against a backdrop of a national legacy of propping up White women as the pinnacle of womanhood and motherhood. It was a year of the same old racist, classist, and sexist lies promulgated as truths. It was a year where we masked a legalized attack on African-American and Latino people as a War on Drugs.
However, this current year is different. It is a good year to take responsibility for these horrid actions and invest in financial restitution to the casualties of the United States’ drug war. This nation is capable of stopping and restoring the damage long-standing incarceration approaches and taking on today’s drug crisis.
This year is a good year to change our racial tune of expecting African American people to prove our worthiness for restorative justice and most importantly to thrive.