David Remnick: The journalist Donovan X. Ramsey was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1987, the very height of the crack cocaine epidemic.
Donovan X. Ramsey: I didn't know what life was like before crack, and I wanted to understand the ways that it shaped our society.
David Remnick: Ramsey has written an account of the crack era of the 1980s and '90s and it's called When Crack Was King: A People's History of a Misunderstood Era.
Donovan X. Ramsey: That I was also very interested in just questions of addiction, and how we as a society deal with addiction on an individual level, but also at scale.
Reporter: The newest and one of the deadliest drugs sweeping the country today is crack, a potent, inexpensive, highly addictive form of cocaine.
Reporter: It infects families, whole communities, and its mere presence changes the lives and perceptions of everyone who comes near it.
Reporter: Crack has become the street drug of choice in the United States, a cheap, powerful high.
Reporter: What does crack do to the mind and body and why is it the most addictive drug in history?
Reporter: Once you try it, you're hooked to it.
David Remnick: Though sometimes sensationalized stories about crack were a regular presence on the nightly news, but Ramsey was after something much deeper. He weaves together the lives of four individuals bound up with the epidemic, and forms an analysis of how crack devastated so many lives, and really changed the country. I was a young reporter at The Washington Post in the early '80s, and when you're a young reporter, very often you do not what's called night police.
You're covering crimes, fires, and accidents at night, and the crack epidemic really took hold in Washington in those years. You write in your book, "We don't discuss the crack cocaine epidemic properly because we barely understand what happened." What do you mean there? What was or is the dominant narrative about the crack era?
Donovan X. Ramsey: The dominant narrative is really a official, often police narrative. When people think of the crack epidemic, they think of crime. They think of the ways that it spilled over into mainstream culture, but they don't necessarily know the ways that it impacted the most vulnerable. The ways that it changed the lives of people who sold it, who were addicted to it, who loved people who sold it, or were addicted to it. The story is much bigger than just a crime story and the toll that crack took on our cities. The story is also about personal devastation and the reasons that people wanted to do and sell drugs.
It's also about the ways that communities overcame the crack epidemic. That we as a nation never took the time to celebrate the fact that the epidemic was over, and to have serious discussion about the factors that led to crack's decline. To figure things out for myself, to set the record straight for people who think that they understood the period, but really didn't, and then to also give young people who are coming of age, who are starting to experiment with drugs, some type of authoritative, multifaceted chronicle of exactly what happened.
David Remnick: Donovan, one thing you don't mention in your answer there was something that's crucial in your book, and that is race. What is the role that race plays in how crack was talked about in real-time in the '80s and the way we should think about it now?
Donovan X. Ramsey: Crack was seen as a problem for Black and Latino people in America's ghettos. It wasn't seen as something that the entire nation was actually struggling with just like anything else, any other major trend. The majority of people in America are white, so the majority of people who used crack were white. It was used at disproportionate rates by Black and Latinos, and because crack was often sold in Black and Latino neighborhoods, our neighborhoods became sites for the epidemic, and then it became associated with just Black and Latino people.
Like anything that becomes associated with marginalized people in this country, it becomes a tool to then further marginalize, to deride, and to really also use as a means to just ignore those communities. When I look back at how crack was treated in the literature, mostly by the mainstream media, I see just tremendous stereotyping, and pathologizing, and so little empathy. Today, when we're looking at something like the opioid epidemic that is primarily having an impact on white Americans, you see a completely different approach by both the media and the average person.
For me, that's a shame because addiction is a big problem that I think that we as a nation still need to figure out ways to grapple with, and we shouldn't waste the opportunity to learn from it just because the communities or folks dealing with addiction are Black, or are Latino. It's a wasted opportunity.
David Remnick: Now, you make the argument that there were a number of external forces that played a role in this extraordinary rise of cocaine and crack use. What were those forces? AIDS, for example, is one thing you point out.
Donovan X. Ramsey: It was really important to me as a Black person that grew up in a neighborhood that was hard hit by crack to be able to contextualize the stories, and to be able to contextualize this phenomenon because, oftentimes, Black folks, our lives are not given context. People, or I should say, the media doesn't really work hard to make meaning of the things that happen in Black people's lives. When I looked into the research, and when I did my interviewing, what I saw was that there was great disaffection among Black and Latino folks in America's urban centers.
That's a word that we use a lot now when we talk about white folks in rural America, disaffection, a sort of hopelessness about the future and about their prospects. You look at things like terrible housing conditions, you look at record high rates of unemployment, you look at so much disappointment from the civil rights and Black Power movements that left people really feeling rudderless. Then you have then this perfect substance that comes about, a stimulant, something that makes you feel good and euphoric in a time where you want to feel good and euphoric and it's super cheap and accessible. That's how crack came to be. I think that's why so many people became addicted.
Reporter: Who turned you on to crack?
Respondent: An old girlfriend of mine. One evening had invited me to take a ride with her and we did so, and she bought some crack. We went back to her place, and she began to smoke and asked me if I want to try it. At first, I was a little bit reluctant but then I said, "All right, well, I'll give it a try." My very first night, I believe, I spent $60. The next morning, I was at the bank's door before it opened, and I spent another $400.
David Remnick: Your book is structured, I think, rather brilliantly around the stories of four people. Elgin Swift, Lennie Woodley, Kurt Schmoke, who was the longtime mayor of Baltimore, and Shawn McCray. Tell us about these figures and why you pick them to be emblematic of the period that you're studying.
Donovan X. Ramsey: It was really important to me to be able to show different sides of the epidemic. That also includes going to different cities, so each of them was from and lived through the period in a different city. It was essential, I think, first, to include a person who struggled with addiction because they are who we hear from the least. It was also really important for me to talk to a former dealer because that is a figure that I think we hear a lot about, but the stories are either glamorized or completely vilified because I think policy is so important when it comes to moderating events like the crack epidemic.
It was also really necessary I thought to talk to a mayor. Then, lastly, with Elgin, I wanted to talk to someone who was not directly involved in using drugs or who was not a big-time drug dealer, but who just loved people in that community to be able to illustrate the secondhand impact.
David Remnick: You have a person in your book, a young Black man named vilified Shawn McCray, he was awarded a scholarship to an elite private middle school, and then not long after he starts selling crack cocaine. What does Shawn McCray embody for you in this book?
Donovan X. Ramsey: I should say that Shawn is one of the characters that annoyed me the most in writing his story.
David Remnick: How do you mean?
Donovan X. Ramsey: Because he just made so many poor decisions. It was important for me to include Shawn because I think he's so representative of the young male American spirit. He was energetic and ambitious. He wanted to be with his friends. He wanted to do well. He made bad decisions in pursuit of all those things. I think that anyone who has been a young man that's had a little bit too much testosterone crossing through their veins understands making poor decisions for those reasons.
I think that had he been born in a different context, he would have been a part of the Gold Rush, or he would have worked on Wall Street, or he would have been involved in some other boon in American history. It just so happened that he came about in a context where he could become rich by selling crack. Despite the many opportunities that he had available to him, a basketball scholarship that took him to Catholic middle school and high school and then ultimately to college where he did graduate, he was still drawn to this promise of the American dream, which was that you could get rich for very little effort and then live your life fabulously.
David Remnick: Shawn returned to Keystone that fall, but he couldn't quite shake what he'd seen back home. He was plenty busy with basketball practice, his work-study job, and an 18-credit schedule, but he wondered if it was all a waste of time. The sad truth was that he'd seen drug dealing do more for guys than he'd ever seen basketball or college do. He worried he was missing out on something big, maybe the opportunity of a lifetime. Your title is "When Crack Was King." What did you mean by that title?
Donovan X. Ramsey: I was inspired by the phrase "King Cotton" as it related to cotton in America during the period of slavery and the way that a commodity could shape an entire society but also start a war. When I thought about how powerful of a substance crack was in my community, it was to us what cotton was to the South. It impacted everything. It, for a period, was the local economy, and it started a war.
David Remnick: What are some of the more popular myths about crack and its effects? What did we get wrong about the drug itself?
Donovan X. Ramsey: There's been a lot of great reporting recently about the crack baby myth. That there was a study that was done, I believe, around '85 by a guy named Ira Chasnoff, who he studied about a few dozen expectant mothers who had used crack and then studied their babies, these cocaine-exposed babies.
Reporter: Dr. Ira Chasnoff of Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital runs the oldest program researching cocaine in the newborn.
Ira Chasnoff: It appears that cocaine has just as devastating effect on pregnancy and the newborn as heroin.
Reporter: Chasnoff told reporters that cocaine exposure was causing some babies to be born with brain damage, and that others were overwhelmed by even simple eye contact with the mother.
Donovan X. Ramsey: From that one study became all the reporting about crack babies and how there would be this generation of children, mostly Black and Latino, who would be severely damaged, really beyond repair, and would be this huge expense. Decades later, a researcher named Hallam Hurt out of Philadelphia the Einstein Hospital did longitudinal studies and saw that across hundreds of cocaine-exposed young people that there was no measurable difference between these people and their peers. That what she believes Chasnoff was seeing was cocaine exposure causing premature birth. He was then ascribing things associated with premature birth to cocaine exposure.
Now, of course, it's not a good idea to use any drug, any stimulant, caffeine, tobacco, nicotine while you're pregnant, that there are all types of complications associated with that, but the effects were not what he said they were and not what he said they would be.
David Remnick: How did the crack epidemic shape politics and policy?
Donovan X. Ramsey: I think that tough-on-crime politics really crystallized around the crack epidemic, that they come at the tail end of a trend that was already happening with Nixon, law and order in response to the civil rights and antiwar movements, and that that administration seized on marijuana and heroin as ways of further criminalizing people involved in those movements. I think that you saw incredible traction of those politics. Then you then see it being picked up in states like New York under Rockefeller, and then it just explodes under Ronald Reagan.
I should say, though, that this is not just conservatives and moderates, that these will also be the politics of people who considered themselves progressive during that period that our current President, Joe Biden, was a big-time drug warrior, anti crime warrior.
David Remnick: It's hard to say who wasn't. The 1994 crime bill comes along. This is during the Clinton administration, and it's supported also by a lot of Black politicians as well. There was a kind of-- obviously, not everybody supported it. In the rearview mirror, it was responsible for an explosion of mass incarceration in this country. You had a lot of people that were in favor of this in their policy decision-making, and maybe you could argue a moral panic coming out of the crack epidemic.
Donovan X. Ramsey: Yes. You couldn't lose with those politics that there was, and it's important to say, a serious crime problem in the country and record murder rates in major cities during the '80s and '90s, really peaking, I would say, around 1990, 1991. Black Americans, people in these cities were really vocal about wanting solutions. I think it's important to note, though, that asking for solutions is not the same thing as developing draconian policies that then incarcerate scores and scores of the people that you're supposed to be trying to help.
David Remnick: If you're not for decriminalization of crack, of heroin, of hard drugs, as it's put, what policies would have been better at that period, in your view, around 1994, than the crime bill that we did get?
Donovan X. Ramsey: I do not believe in policies like mandatory minimum sentences. Look, I'm not a legislator, so I'm not able to right now come up with what I think would have been the magic bullet. What I can say is that taking discretion away from judges who do this thing professionally to be able to say, "This person should go to jail for 5 or 100 years," was not a good idea. I think that the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which we know and knew then were the same substance, was not a good idea. That that was something that was going to fuel mass incarceration and do it in a way that was unequal.
David Remnick: Was that distinction racist? In other words, the distinction between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine.
Donovan X. Ramsey: I think that the policy is race neutral in its face, right? But I think that when we look at how it breaks down from then policing all the way up to the actual sentencing, that that becomes racist. It is a race-neutral policy that is applied in a racist way.
David Remnick: You said earlier that it started a war, that crack cocaine really swept the country and it was a dominant thing. What is its legacy now that we're in 2023?
Donovan X. Ramsey: Crack's legacy is, I would say, a missed opportunity to understand how devastation at a societal and community level can lead to serious consequences. That for me, it's bigger than a substance. It's about entire communities falling through cracks. No pun intended. It's also about how individual people and communities can pull themselves out of it.
That it was the power of community that saved the most vulnerable people during the period. It was grandmothers taking in grandchildren while their kids were running the streets. It was churches doing gun buyback programs.
It was the Nation of Islam in some cases busting up housing projects and kicking out drug dealers. That those things didn't end the epidemic, but they kept people alive long enough for the epidemic to end. For me, that's a major lesson that we can take away from the crack epidemic is that people and communities are strong in that when we face other drug epidemics, which we are, and which we will, that that's where we should put our investment.
David Remnick: Donovan Ramsey, thank you so much.
Donovan X. Ramsey: Thank you so much for having me.
David Remnick: Donovan Ramsey's new book is called When Crack Was King. One thing we did want to note, Ramsey mentioned Ira Chasnoff, the researcher whose study led to the crack baby myth. Chasnoff contradicted his own findings as early as 1992, well before the later research that also disproved it.
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