Updated: Feb 25
There is no doubt that the crack era of the 1980s changed everything about America as a whole. However, early sensationalized news coverage caused a national panic around this issue in Black communities specifically, and toward Black mothers particularly. This is particularly relevant today because negative stereotypes that arose from this era are still alive today. This affects how we are perceived and treated when we access medical care.
Prior to this era, cocaine had an established history of widespread use in White communities as a party and performance drug. Although two-thirds of crack users during this era were White, this is likely a narrative you will never hear. The "crack epidemic", the "crack baby" or that crack use leads to violence in the inner cities are key narratives that you have likely heard. These tropes have thus become synonymous with black motherhood, particularly as the media and government policy focused in on Black communities. Currently, there is a substantial body of evidence disproving these myths. Yet the danger lies in their continued perpetuation to this day.
Crack, Cocaine, Corruption, and Conspiracy is the new Netflix documentary that addresses the age old myth of the crack baby and how structural forces were used to criminalize Black families.
It highlights how Child Protective Services was weaponized against black families, and how Black women using crack cocaine were rarely offered drug treatment, but instead thrown in jail. It also shows how doctors deepened medical mistrust within Black communities through inappropriate drug screenings of pregnant women, and assumed criminalization while seeking prenatal care.
All of this was occurring while the federal government very quickly dismantled poverty protection programs that prevented the type of destitution that often fuels drug use. Our government was also complicit in drug smuggling operations that led to the explosion of cocaine importation into the US, thus fueling the crack crisis.
The "war on drugs" as it was called, was actually a full out war on the victims. Every time we as a society choose to persistently underfund drug treatment and mental health programs, and instead build jails, tout fancy slogans like “Just say No’, and engage in victim blaming, we simply divert attention from the larger problem of government ineptitude and the resultant social inequities at the root causes of addiction.
As Black history month comes to a close, we should remember that black history IS American history. The historical narratives of BIPOC should be told, uplifted, and validated year round.We should also remember that the power of perception may be not only damaging, but long lasting. And that these perceptions can change how we see others on a human level, including in medical settings.