The “Crack Head”: How Systematic Inequality Informs Popular Discourse

In middle school “crack head” was basically the equivalent of “jerk” or “weirdo”. It acted as a strange insult, simultaneously seeming to mean that the person it was bestowed upon was both gross and crazy. We were not children of the ‘80’s but were instead children of children of the ‘80’s and far too young to question where these things actually came from. Political correctness wasn’t stylish yet, and in truth, even when adults admonished us for throwing around offensive terms like “crack head” or “retarded” we were seldom being admonished for our ignorance and more so being disciplined for our general loudness or impoliteness. What they did say was “that’s not nice” what they didn’t say was “that’s fueled by complex systems of socio-political hierarches”. Perhaps they didn’t think of it like that at the time either, that their twelve and thirteen year olds were potentially reinforcing deeply ingrained stigmas in the context of their playground bickering.

Crack cocaine both socially and statistically is associated primarily with black communities of low socioeconomic status. Though this is not always explicitly referenced in the slang of “crack head” it still seems to bear some connection. The United States criminal justice system is frequently the focus of controversy when discussing the presence of institutionalized racism, though regardless of personal beliefs numbers do suggest an undeniable racialized bias. This is specifically relevant in the context of the War On Drugs, where, though both white and black offenders have statistically comparable rates of both possession and sale of drugs, drugs arrests are overwhelmingly more frequent for black offenders. This is sustained through a series of systematic inequalities, that include but are not limited to: greater numbers of stop and frisk based on racial profiling, greater likelihood of being detained while awaiting felony trials and of course, environment and the issue of institutionalized poverty. Another way it is executed structurally is in the conviction/sentencing itself, this is an equally pervasive and even subtler divisive strategy.

It was not until 2010 that disparities related to possession of crack vs. powder cocaine were addressed in a judicial context. The Fair Sentencing Act, signed by President Obama in 2010, eliminated the five year mandatory sentence for possession of crack cocaine that was instigated by the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 and decreased the original crack to powder ratio from 1–100g to 1–18g. In spite of this, popular conceptions about crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine seem heavily informed by these judicial inequalities. Stigma surrounding the black crack addicted mother seem particularly relevant in dictating discourses related to crack cocaine use, taking on a particularly gendered stigma the “crack baby” becomes the butt of “harmless jokes” but is actually the product of a culturally derived beliefs defining the “unfit mother”.

This idea deviates so crucially from the normative conception of femininity that the crack-addled mother becomes an unforgivable figure. Crack use is also heavily linked to serious health problems like AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and this contributes to the conception of the crack-addicted woman as amoral and promiscuous. Here the Woman of Color specifically is frequently demonized and not only assumes her role as hypersexualized (as informed by white patriarchal systems) but is demoted because her body is suspect. Potentially diseased, she cannot be the subject of sexual interest, and as a drug addict she is unquestionably unfit for motherhood, both of which were her only pathways to being valued initially.

These discourses undoubtedly trickle down into our popular language/culture and become “acceptable” so long as they are far enough removed from their point of origin. They are, at best cringe worthy, ruefully maintained “bad-good-jokes” and never explicitly called out for their racist undertones. That differences in the general public’s acceptance of crack vs. powder cocaine use may well be informed by implicit racialized biases stemming from these institutionalized systems isn’t something that is regularly acknowledged.

Following the installment of the Anti-Drug-Abuse acts and general congressional attention the “crack epidemic” taking place in the United States during the 1980’s was a wave of mass media coverage that elicited a public hysteria. While other drugs (heroin, LSD, and to a lesser extent marijuana) have been publicized similarly during other time frames, never before had the media’s vilification of a drug possessed such a decisive persona. The portrait of the crack user as absolutely the most intensely addicted also assumed they would be the most amoral, prone to criminal activity just to get a fix. Thus, crack cocaine was inextricably linked with poverty and in the blink of an eye declared more dangerous than any other drug that had come before it. Unlike its predecessor the pot head or even the acid head, the crack head lacked any and all harmless stupidity, they were a criminal first and foremost and they were most likely violent

Current psychological research examines attitudes related to the legality/teratogenic effects of an assortment of different drugs, popular conceptions of perceived self-risk for different drugs, racialized sentencing, potential psychosocial factors related to crack use and comorbid diagnosis, and stigma of the “crack head” in popular youth dialogue. Still there seems to be little information/research related to the intersection of these topics. It seems entirely likely that perspectives governed by the criminal justice system would inform common perceptions of drug harmfulness and interest in experimentation. Specifically in evaluating attitudes related to crack vs. powder cocaine and the bodies associated with either. If this is the case, systems of judicial control are not only informing perceptions of drug type, but also dictating implicit bias related to regulatory discrimination based on race.

The trouble with implicit biases lies in that they are implicit, and so, it is easy to engage in them without realizing it. This illuminates a necessity to acknowledge less-explicit manifestations/enactments of discrimination in general. The term “microaggression” if frequently thrown around in more “radical” academic environments, but outside of that and very specific sections of society it isn’t a highly popularized term. A microaggression, is basically defined as an act of “unintended” discrimination and can include any “offhand” degradation of a marginalized group. People of color, people with minority sexual orientations or non-normative gender identities/presentations, women*, and people of lower SES are frequently the victims of microagressions. Perpetrators come in all forms, and while the microagressions themselves are something to look out for, it’s the denial of them, or the kind of blanket “I’m not discriminating because I didn’t say anything explicitly” attitude that is deeply problematic.

Potentially “unconscious” or accidental expressions of discrimination or stereotype maintenance are largely a product of learned socio-political structures. If they occur the best thing to do is notice them and attempt to correct them. Acknowledgement is crucial in extricating the narrowly maintained idea of being “open-minded” or “unprejudiced”. In truth, it is necessary to constantly evaluate the ways in which we each as individuals participate in systemic inequalities. This is not to say that the individual can, or should be, the primary focus of blame (because obviously there is a larger evil) but that the individual must still be conscientious. That privilege is complex, and so is oppression.

The “crack head” is merely one example of a reinterpreted stigma, but reinterpreted does not mean reclaimed. There is nothing positive about it as either a disassociated insult or an actual identifier. The process through which authoritative bodies (like the legal system) inform mass media and then mass media acts as means for information that is then reinterpreted in “criminal subcultures” and then further transposed into discourses between drug-users and non-drug-users alike is complex, but is it also persistent. These systems act as modes of regulatory control over certain bodies, but are concealed in the guise of “public interest”. They are perceived as isolated, and thus, when those who aren’t actually engaging with a given issue get their hands on buzzwords it isn’t immediately criticized.

Perhaps if do begin to provide more nuanced explanations as to why children aren’t supposed to throw around insults directly tied to stigmatized bodies/identities/concepts the conversation will become more widespread. Getting beyond its limited “academic” language may also aid in the conversation becoming not only more relevant but also more accessible. Both to children and to people in general, for part of a failure to act, is a failure to recognize. Acknowledging and abandoning colloquial terms that subtly act as racist/sexist/ableist/classist/creedist etc. mechanisms, is an act of resistance, and in doing so individuals can begin to better control their role in a system they must inevitably interact with. There are many ways of naming that are not simply “mean” or “inappropriate” but also serve to perpetuate and conceal injustices in the world at large, and it is these that have to be dissected and improved.


Bushway, Shawn D., and Anne Morrison Piehl. “Judging Judicial Discretion: Legal Factors and Racial Discrimination in Sentencing.” Law & Society Review 35.4 (2001): 733–64. ProQuest. 25 Apr. 2015 .

Chambers, Cheryl. Institutional Racism: Is Law used as a Tool to Perpetuate Racial Inequality. Order No. AAI3329222 2009ProQuest. 15 Apr. 2015 .

Furst, R. T., et al. “The Stigmatized Image of the “Crack Head”: A Sociocultural Exploration of a Barrier to Cocaine Smoking among a Cohort of Youth in New York City.” Deviant Behavior 20.2 (1999): 153–81. ProQuest. 25 Apr. 2015 .

“Crack vs. Powder Cocaine: Disproportionate Penalties — Discover the Networks.” Crack vs. Powder Cocaine: Disproportionate Penalties — Discover the Networks. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

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