The Crack Epidemic and Opioid Crisis Tells Us About Race in America

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.