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Our Newfound Sympathy for Addicts

Why was the crack epidemic treated differently?

In April, a prominent U.S. political figure yelled the following at Black Lives Matter protesters: “I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African-American children!”

Was this Donald Trump? Ted Cruz, maybe?

No, it was former President Bill Clinton, whose wife Hillary, the current Democratic presidential nominee, went out of her way last month at her party’s convention to demonstrate she too thinks black lives matter.

The Clintons are a throwback to the 1990s. How Bill Clinton talked about crack addicts in April is how many, and probably most, Americans viewed that epidemic at the time. 

Crack addicts were reduced to gang members. Criminals. “Superpredators.”

Compassion was rarely part of the national dialogue on illegal drugs back then. Quite the opposite—Clinton-era drug laws punished “crackheads” more harshly than users of other illegal drugs.

Rare’s Yasmeen Alamiri spent months examining America’s heroin epidemic and found more sympathy for today’s victims than those addicted to crack cocaine in the ’90s could have imagined: “Once Obama, Congress and even health officials joined the chorus asking for ‘compassionate’ care in confronting this crisis, it marked a drastic change in tone from the United States’ long-running ‘War on Drugs’—which disproportionately affected minorities, specifically black men,” Alamiri reports.

She continues: “Now that the conversation has become less about ‘junkies’ who have made a criminal choice and more about everyday Americans getting hooked on prescription drugs, the national calculation has focused on the system leading to drug abuse.”

Everyone now appears to want to help heroin addicts, whose numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate. Thank God. This is how such crises should be addressed. Why was the crack epidemic treated differently?

For one thing, 80 percent of today’s heroin abusers got hooked by first becoming addicted to legal prescription drugs. These people aren’t criminals, you see. Their problems started with legal drugs, not criminal activity. If anything, though, condemning poor people, often black, for using illegal drugs while excusing the middle class and affluent who become “junkies” legally only compounds the hypocrisy.

But perhaps the most significant difference is that the current heroin crisis has mostly affected whites. The crack epidemic was largely seen as a black problem.

“When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences,” the New York Times reported last year. 

“But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.”

Most Americans, including President Bill Clinton, were probably not being intentionally racist in how they approached the crack problem. But the attitudes and policies of that time were unquestionably racist—certainly functionally racist.

Sympathy is more easily given when the victims are relatable. When you can see yourself in a victim of drug abuse, you’re more likely to feel for them. White Americans knew few if any crack addicts 20 years ago—films like New Jack City were about as close as they got—but they are now alarmed by how many heroin addicts they see in their midst.

Black Americans were simply not afforded the same sympathetic attitudes or help—far from it. “No matter how far from our lives crack was, we’re guilty by association,” said law professor Ekow Yankah in March.

“African-Americans were cast as pathological,” he said. “Their plight was evidence of collective moral failure, of welfare mothers and rock-slinging thugs and a reason to cut off all help.” 

“Blacks would just have to pull themselves out of the crack epidemic,” Yankah said.

Today’s Black Lives Matter movement is often controversial. But its primary focus on police brutality has been validated in a myriad of ways since the unrest in Ferguson two years ago this month. These activists and supporters believe black Americans are generally placed in a different category in the public mind and thus receive unequal justice, not to mention consideration and understanding.

In the 1990s, black crack-cocaine addicts were unquestionably placed in a different and lesser category. Why would anyone doubt this still happens today? Why wouldn’t black Americans still think this today?

Jack Hunter is the politics editor at Rare.us and the former new media director for Sen. Rand Paul.  



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