Editor’s Note: The newest issue of the Alcohol and Drug History Society’s journal, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, or SHAD, is a special edition, joined with the journal Contemporary Drug Problems. It focuses specifically on gender and critical drug studies. Two of SHAD’s newest co-editors, Nancy Campbell and David Herzberg, provide an introduction to the issue here, and over the next few weeks we’re going to feature some of the issue’s authors giving insights into their work. Enjoy!
The 2000 film “Traffic” is harshly critical of American drug policy as ineffective, corrupt, and cruel. Among the many stories it traces is the ascent of DEA chief Robert Wakefield (played by Michael Douglas) to the position of Drug Czar. Just as Wakefield reaches the apex of his career as an anti-drug warrior, his daughter Caroline descends from recreational drug use into “hard core” heroin addiction.
Caroline, blonde and so white as to be almost luminescent, begins with casual drug use with other white friends in upscale settings. As her use becomes more serious, the movie follows her to meaner streets and more diverse companions. When she finally fully succumbs to addiction, she has become a sex worker in an African American neighborhood in the employ of a young, heavily muscled, dark-skinned dealer.
We all immediately recognize these embarrassing racial stereotypes—that’s why they so efficiently signal Caroline’s decline. And thanks to a wealth of vibrant scholarship that has revealed the racial dynamics of American drug policies, we are likely to be enraged by the calculated conflation of addiction, degradation, and blackness in a supposedly rebellious film. Shouldn’t Steven Soderbergh (the director) know better? But racialized tropes are so deeply built into drug-war culture that their absence would be surprising even in a critical vehicle like “Traffic.”