Cocaine in 1980s America: Fine for the Wealthy & Well-Educated; Bad for the Poor

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

Crack is Wack Keith Haring
New York City “Crack is Wack” mural first painted in 1986 by artist Keith Haring. Image courtesy of cookiespi on Flickr.

The years directly preceding the American “crack epidemic” of the 1980s are worth re-examining. Cocaine was by no means new, and people had been using and sometimes smoking, or freebasing, the drug for years. In the early eighties, however, many cocaine users were well-educated white professionals, wealthy celebrities, or captains of industry. By about 1986, though, dealers began condensing cocaine into “crack” that people could smoke instead of snort. As the perception of people who used cocaine changed from white and wealthy to Black and poor, every aspect of reporting changed, too. We can see this unfold in real time, by tracking news coverage in the New York Times archive.

Hollywood Cocaine

Robert Lindsey’s front-page story “Pervasive Use of Cocaine Is Reported in Hollywood” appeared in the Times on October 30, 1982. It described how drug use had become so widespread that companies insuring movies had begun to amend their policies to reflect drug-related risks. Lindsey quoted an unpublished survey of stuntwomen that claimed more than half of the women asked actively used drugs or knew someone who did.

NYT Headline Cocaine1
New York Times, October 30, 1982.

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Points Interview: David Farber

Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Professor David Farber, the author of CRACK: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Farber is the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor at University of Kansas, and is a historian of modern America. His previous books include Everybody Ought to Be Rich: The Life and Times of John J. Raskob, Capitalist; Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam and Chicago ’68.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I’ve written a history of the crack cocaine years. In the 1980s and 1990s, crack crews took over swathes of poor, disproportionately Black urban neighborhoods. They set up 24/7 open-air drug markets. In those communities, suffering from the ravages of de-industrialization and the pain of Reagan-era disinvestment, crack use became epidemic.

Across the United States, a moral panic took root. White, middle-class Americans feared that crack was coming for them, too. That moral panic contributed to draconian drug laws that accelerated the rise of mass incarceration in the United States.

Meanwhile, crack kingpins got rich (at least for a while), Gangsta Rap artists celebrated their exploits, and mainstream American society found one more reason to harden its heart against its poorest and most alienated members. The Crack Years changed America.

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