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What the Crack Epidemic and Opioid Crisis Tells Us About Race in America

CJ Quartlbaum

For as long as America has been America, drugs have been an issue in some form or another. The response to the problem of drugs, however, has not always been the same. One of the starkest contrasts can be seen in the responses to the crack epidemic versus the opioid crisis. The coverage, response, and feelings to these moments in history couldn’t be more different.

It starts with the name: an epidemic versus a crisis. An epidemic is a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease within a community. A crisis is a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.

The feelings conjured by the word epidemic tells you to run. You must get away. Run as fast and far as possible. A crisis is different. A crisis evokes empathy. A crisis motivates you to help.

Bias is immediately recognized in the name. People addicted to crack are bad but people addicted to opioids need our compassion. Unsurprisingly, the feelings and responses to these play out along the color lines.


The crack epidemic is when crack cocaine flooded inner cities between the early 1980s and early 1990s. This highly addictive form of cocaine offered a faster and shorter high that ravaged neighborhoods. Crime rates surged, families broke apart, and countless lives were forever destroyed. Most black people in the inner city during this time were touched in some way, even tangentially, by the horrors of this drug.

News outlets told horror stories of crack babies and their mothers, gang violence, fiends, and this drug that was devasting communities. The face of that drug was black. Its users were black. The problem was black. This reporting created a negative image in the minds of Americans. It went along with the false narratives that were already told of black people since they were first brought here.

One of the first lies justified slavery: African bodies were made for the heat and therefore were able to withstand the harsh southern climate. The Birth of a Nation,”  released in 1915, portrayed black men as savages here to ravage white women. This created hysteria centered around the idea that white women needed protection from black men. In 1974, we were introduced to the term “welfare queen.” This referred to single black women receiving public assistance. The term suggested black women were lazy and took advantage of government handouts by not working and constantly having more children. These merely scratch the surface of the lies told to demonize black people in this country.

The Reagan administration responded worse than the media to the crack epidemic with the so-called “War on Drugs.” This was a series of policies that criminalized crack use and possession with stiff, zero tolerance penalties. The purpose was to treat drug use, according to Reagan, as “public enemy number one.” With $1.7 billion allocated to these efforts, the federal government was more than ready to imprison, not rehabilitate, drug users and possessors.

As a result, incarceration rates increased 8-fold. In 1980, the number of people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses was 50,000. By 1997, that number ballooned to 400,000. The overwhelming majority of those locked up were black as reportedly, 80% of crack users were African-American. The Reagan administration simply continued a set of policies from the Nixon era that were specifically designed to target and incarcerate black people.


The opioid crisis is upon us now. Since the late ’90s, there has been a massive increase
in opioid use. Opioids are types of painkillers, including but not limited to, Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, and fentanyl. In 2015, more than 50,000 people died from drug overdose, causing more deaths than car accidents and guns. In 2016, nearly 80% of deaths attributed to opioid use were white people.

To put this into perspective, there is presently a case before the northern district of Ohio suing pharmaceutical companies for $1 trillion in damages. This would be awarded to state and local governments that have had to bear the financial cost of this crisis.

The media is framing this as a story of over-availability, bad pharma, and a government failing to protect its citizens. Rural communities being decimated by opioid use are victims who need rescuing.

The response by the government has also been different from the way it responded to the crack problem. There has been federal aid given to states to help them address the crisis. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has committed $144 million in grants to help battle opioid addiction.

The most striking difference is President Trump’s pledge to build a temporary memorial to opioid abuse victims. The government has recognized how opioids have hurt many communities and is rightfully responding with the utmost compassion.

These same measures weren’t taken for the black and brown bodies ravaged by crack.

Why the Difference?

Like almost everything else in this country, the answer comes down to color. Even now, as the rate of African-Americans dying from opioid use increases, they are excluded from the narrative. If you watch the news, you would think this is exclusively a rural white problem. But cities like Chicago and New York have seen more opioid overdoses than entire states.

This will sound harsh but it is important for us to hear: America (generally speaking) does not like black people. It is difficult to argue otherwise. The differences in these responses are just another notch on America’s belt of black demonization. Things are different for us here and the proof is everywhere.

There is a reason Stephon Clark was shot 8 times, primarily in his back, while this young man was able to fight an officer, attempt to steal his car, and arrested with no harm. The narrators at the end of this video say, “He’s lucky he’s not black; they would have been shot him.”

The inequitable treatment starts early as black children are disproportionately suspended at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Black neighborhoods are often labeled dangerous and sketchy while white neighborhoods rarely ever receive the same classifications.

As we marched for black lives in the past few years, there was very little public support from white America. But when the Parkland students came together to march for gun control, they received widespread support from much of America and many of our nation’s top companies.

Coming Together

While there may be a feeling of harshness to this piece, I don’t believe we can skate
around the issue, if we ever want to see healing. Organizations like Unpaid Labor are committed to seeing racial justice and unity. They believe there can be no healing without first acknowledging and wrestling with the past. No relationship has ever been healed without addressing the circumstances that led to its break. If America is for real about wanting to be better and unifying, then she must own up to both her past and present.

There will be no justice if there is an inability to admit things are unjust. The average
black person just wants a fair shake in this world. They want to wake up and walk through life with the same level of carefreeness that others seem to have. If everything that affects us is demonized, scrutinized, and criminalized, we will never get there.

We just want to be there. We just want to be free.

40 thoughts on “What the Crack Epidemic and Opioid Crisis Tells Us About Race in America

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  22. Alynthia M Penn

    Think this might be a part of the US trying to respond with a stronger disciplinarian stance? https://www.npr.org/2018/07/02/623327129/bystanders-to-fatal-overdoses-increasingly-becoming-criminal-defendants
    It won’t mean much if the majority of those they prosecute are minority bystanders but I don’t think they’ll find as many. Just a hunch… https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/23/622692550/analysis-finds-geographic-overlap-in-opioid-use-and-trump-support-in-2016

  23. h l munsey

    mr robert vincent’s comment is somewhat on target. it is very fine to protest when there is injustice. and there is nothing in scripture that says we (blacks) cannot use avenues (legal) to fight injustice. but to desire the acceptance of white america is not only wrong, it’s (idolatry). it makes me sick to hear black people say ‘good’ hair. what is ‘good’ hair? and that’s just one thing. but blacks (as a whole) live their lives to be like white people. sad but true. where is JESUS in all of this. women ‘adore’ oprah. she’s rich and got ‘good’ hair. but she is not a (true) christian. she’s a fraud. and if she dies in the state she’s in, she’s going to Hell. yet blacks and whites ‘worship’ her. she ain’t talking about crack, etc. i’m done

  24. Roger Vincent

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  25. Alysia Crawford

    Thank you for this brave and bold article. For those of you who can’t see the truth and grief in this… I really have nothing to say. There are those willing to rub dirt on their eyes in order to be healed of blindness and there are those who just won’t risk getting themselves dirty enough to be able to see. My eyes were opened a long time ago and every time I learn more my vision gets deeper and clearer and my heart swells with love for my brown skinned brothers and sisters and that love drives me to link arms with them in an effort to END. THIS. I follow their lead- for they are the experts in this long, hard, relentless journey. It is an honor to walk with them.

  26. Quartlbaum

    Sometimes people just hear what they want to hear see what they want to see but if you’re looking for the truth you just got it the epidemic in crisis issue is very real the way people of color are treated in America has not changed many of you know what I mean just walk into any Chinese store in the end or anybody ever foreign birth and just watch the reaction as you walk through this door this is because America is still constantly trying to put everybody before the black people so a lot of foreigners come and believe that they are the new white people were blacks are concern my personal belief is we need to group together fix our neighborhoods block by block start to purchase from ourselves and continue to be the 30 billion dollars a year buying power that we are change in life starts with one so will you be the one to step out and start making this change black or white it doesn’t matter change must be gin

  27. Frank

    I don’t believe I said anything like that, Elodie.

  28. Elodie Quetant

    I’ve read this article several times and believe you may be missing something. The media and government responses to these drug issues ARE THE SUBJECT of this article. The author does not say or imply black people are addicts because of racism. Not even one time.

  29. Frank

    Thomas W – making excuses and blaming everything on racism isn’t “helping the conversation move forward.” It’s moving everything backwards. But hey, if moving backwards is what you all want, don’t let a voice of disagreement and honesty stand in the way.

  30. Thomas W.

    Neither one of you are helping the conversation move forward. Projecting others feelings or by calling what someone believes or said is stupid, isn’t helpful. We can be better than that.

    We can refrain from such while still making responses from different points of view.

  31. Frank

    You have a lot of excuses, and racism is your first choice.

    Still, it comes down to the choice to change. Hate the messenger because you refuse to hear the message, but truth is still truth.

    By the way, the absolutely overwhelming of homeless drug addicts are white. And guess what? They’re full of excuses too.

  32. Frank

    Also, don’t bother projecting your own psychosis onto me.

    My anger is toward people’s tendency to blame everything & everyone but the right thing & person. The people who do that will never recover.

    Same principle applies to black Americans. If all you ever do is blame everyone else for all your problems (which is what “TheWitness” specializes in) you will never be anything but miserable, and addicted to being resentful.

  33. Frank

    Taviyah, did you fail to read my first sentence?

    “I work with recovering drug and alcohol addicts every day.”

    There’s your answer.

    Stop blaming everything on racism. That’s just stupid.

    By the way, the absolutely overwhelming majority of addicts – particularly homeless addicts – are white. Gotta be racism, right?

  34. Lady

    There is someone who commented here saying racism isn’t to blame it is the user who made a choice. The article clearly stipulates that the attempt to end the usage were vastly different based on race. White people on the drug get rehab black people on the drug received jail. Statistics proved that the treatment of the same problem was vastly different.

    But hey I’m opened minded let’s say we take the user as the primary reason why people do drugs were there things such as redlining (the limitations of moving and being denied home loans), how about the school to prison pipeline, what about PTSD caused by seeing grotesque violence acted out on people that look like you could all these things lead to limitations feelings of being trapped that cause someone use drugs. Not saying that other races don’t have issues but anytime a law has to be made to protect people it means they were considered in the first place. Black people were consider 3/5 a person then property and had laws that finally freed them to be people then given permission to vote then had to avoid lynchings which are now public executions by cops. Rosewood, Black wall street, Seneca falls now know as central park all prominent black communities and business that were destroyed.

    But sure the choice is on the user has nothing to do with the experience or environment and it is okay the treatment to each users choice is different. *insert more sarcasm here*

  35. Osa

    Yes!! This is spot on CJ keep writing great work!

  36. Toviyah

    You seem to be angry with the drug addicts’ denial and self-pity. But it’s part of the disease. So what are you doing to overcome your resentment toward those people ? Just curious.


  37. Frank

    The problem – at least with this author – is the exact same problem exhibited by every single addict. The problem is somebody else’s fault. In the short term it feels MUCH better to blame everyone else, but in the long term it’s suicide.

  38. Thomas W.

    Sometimes, say the Reagan administration from your example, react to things simply from a legalistic perspective that we as Christians have often resorted to when faced with a problem.

    Subject X is not good for you; therefore, we ban Subject X.

    Racism may very well be a part of it and initially for drugs, even unconsciously, but it’s as likely that it’s our legalistic tendencies in reactions.

    In conjunction with that, Reagan didn’t really fight an overseas war (he had a cold war), and I think he focused on one here instead, by creating a war on drugs which many at the time, regardless of color viewed as bad.

    30 years or more later its much easier to see how ineffective and wrong it was for various reasons including how it effected African American communities and families.

    And this is where I don’t think you give enough credit to this changing. Many white people have been highly supportive of the black lives movements. Many white people are sharing the problems and failures of the war on drugs with others and seek reform to the system. It takes time to get through entrenched worldviews. But this is breaking through even on conservative and traditionally legalistic worldviews toward a more libertarian stance on the matter of drugs.

    The media doesn’t like to tell you that though.

    The opiod crisis/epidemic, whatever you want to call it, is providing an opportunity though for treatment and pathways that are non-incarcerating. In other words, there is a prime opportunity to set the foundation for all the other drugs we’re concerned with moving forward to reform and legalization at least for usage. Instead of waiting for an ambiguous perception of admittance on the past, there is a great opportunity to change at this point.

    And I’ll say it here. Trump’s ability to pace and lead is a prime opportunity to lead us away from the Jeff Sessions who are still hung up on legalism when it comes to drugs. He’s already making Sessions back off of weed. I would not be surprised that by the end of his 8 year run if most recreational drugs have moved away from incarceration and toward treatment for addiction where wanted.

  39. h l munsey

    please stop blaming white america for the woes of the black community. the black preachers don’t preach the ‘truth’. and (most) black families don’t want to hear the truth. so just STOP. the bible is the (same) for every single person that has ever been born. if we truly follow CHRIST, then we will teach and preach HIS TRUTH. i don’t live to please white people. i live to please JESUS CHRIST. the reason why the black community is so screwed up is because we (so deeply) desire the acceptance of white people. that’s IDOLATRY. the ‘truth’ is the ‘light’. like it or lump it.

  40. Frank

    I work with recovering drug and alcohol addicts every day. There is ONE key and ONLY ONE key to recovery. Unless you are willing to take personal responsibility for your choices, and commit to change, nothing is going to get better.

    In other words, you CJ, are dead wrong in the basic premise of this article.

    Sadly, blaming everything on racism is far easier than taking personal responsibility for anything.

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