The Man Who Studies the History of Crack: David Farber on Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism and the Decade of Greed
I’ve had a long fascination with intellectuals. Deep thinkers. Experts. Iconoclasts.
It stems from my days growing up in the backyard of Ohio State University where my late Dad was an administrator and Secretary of the Board of Trustees.
Today, as a biographer and journalist, I receive requests from media teams like Cambridge University Press to feature authors who offer unique insights into the world. And nine times out of ten I gladly accept the invitation to explore the depths of such interesting minds.
My most recent request however to cover the topic of crack cocaine left me with raised eyebrows. I’ve never experimented with drugs of any kind and thus have no orientation to them. Nevertheless, I was happy to take on the assignment.
David Farber has authored a new book called Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism and the Decade of Greed which promises to generate a great deal of media attention. It highlights the story of young men who have bet their lives on the economic rewards of selling “rock” cocaine, the users and their crack pipes, and the world of law enforcement that’s hell-bent on incarcerating scores of African Americans ensnared in the massive crack ecosystem.
Replete with interviews, archival research, judicial records, underground videos, and prison memoirs, Crack offers a deep examination into why cocaine continues to be such as prized economic enterprise during our times.
For a more in-depth look at this theme, I invited author David Farber, the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Kansas to share a few of his personal thoughts on his study of crack. Farber is the author of numerous books, including Everybody Ought to be Rich (2013), The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism (2010), Taken Hostage (2004), Sloan Rules (2002), The Age of Great Dreams (1994), and Chicago ‘68 (1988).
Living in New York City with his family at the height of the crack cocaine years helped inform his views about this widely documented epidemic. Later he lived across the street from a small-time crack distributorship in Philadelphia.
A little about you?
I never smoked crack. I did live in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the crack era. Until my wife and I discovered it, our little boy had an impressive rainbow-colored collection of crack vial caps. Less than three blocks from our apartment, two rival crews sold thousands of rocks every day. Crack users binged in our unlocked building vestibule. Anything not locked down in our neighborhood was stolen. At the time, I was horrified.
And then you moved?
Yes. A bit over a decade later, living now at the ragged edge of Center City Philadelphia, a small crack crew operated in the alley below my living room window. By the time I lived in Philly, beginning in 2004, crack had largely lost its massive appeal. Other drugs, including meth, opioids, and potent strains of cannabis, had replaced it.
What did you begin to discover at this point?
That my crack-dealing neighbors had found a market niche — the men who congregated near a homeless shelter a few hundred feet from my building.
I got to know the crew’s head of operations. He was a civil and fascinating man (when he was not too high on the blunts that he smoked endlessly).
What prompted you to write this book?
Conversations like this planted the seed. So eventually, I chose to write this history of the crack cocaine years in the United States. I saw a history of crack as a way to think about how drug regimes have figured into American life.
Though the story does not usually get into our history textbooks, American life has been fundamentally shaped by our collective desire to use and regulate narcotics and other intoxicants that affect our state-of-mind.
For nearly fifty years, in an unprecedented way, we have waged a “war on drugs” that has profoundly altered the lives of the American people, cruelly punished the poor, and in vastly disproportionate numbers unjustly targeted African Americans for incarceration.
In your opinion what were the primary drivers of the crack epidemic?
My book is historical, focusing on the 1980s and 1990s — it was during this time that crack was epidemic in many inner-city communities (it was never actually epidemic throughout the United States and it is not now epidemic anywhere in the United States through its use is on the upswing as, somewhat ironically, people seek drug alternatives to the dangers of opioids, especially heroin).
Mass distribution in the 1980s and 1990s of crack cocaine was driven by both supply and demand. On the supply side, Crack explains how, in a de-industrializing America in which good-paying, dignified jobs in inner cities were rare, selling rock cocaine made cold, hard sense to a broad cohort of young men. The crack industry was a lucrative enterprise for the “Horatio Alger boys” of their place and time, especially in an era in which market forces ruled and entrepreneurial risk-taking was celebrated.
Can you describe the demographics of those who were actively involved?
Young, predominately African American entrepreneurs were the primary profit-sharing partners in this deviant, criminal form of economic globalization. Like their mostly-legit counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s America (e.g., Donald Trump and his “Art of the Deal”), they embraced the “creative destruction” that was simultaneously tearing apart communities and reinventing American capitalism.
And why crack versus other drugs?
Crack was a perfect drug for these hustlers because it took little capital to start-up a distributorship — a gram of powder cocaine selling for $100 could easily be turned into dozens of rocks that could be sold for $5 each. And the technology needed to turn the powder into rocks was easily learned and could be done on any stovetop.
There have been widespread accounts citing the impact of politics in fueling the crack economy. Is there any truth to these?
In much of American society during the Age of Reagan and Reaganomics, disinvesting in inner-city communities and denigrating people living in poverty became political common sense. In those left-behind communities, selling crack cocaine became an economic lifeline; it became a way to live out dreams of self-worth and material riches.
And can you talk about the demand side of the economic transaction?
It boils down to this: For too many poor people of color who had become economically dislocated and socially alienated from mainstream society, crack cocaine was a balm that offered instant solace for their hard lives. For just $5 or so, a user could buy enough crack to get very high, very fast. Crack hits the brain hard — a “bell-ringer,” as users say.
Can you elaborate a bit more about this user demographic?
Most people who used crack were already experienced drug users. Crack was just a cheaper, heavier high than the alternatives. And critically, at a time when HIV-AIDS was rapidly spreading, using crack did not entail needles. Crack was perceived as far less dangerous than needle drugs, such as heroin or speed. Fairly quickly, at least 500,000 people became hardcore users of crack. In a few years, there was a backlash against crack even within the drug user community, as people saw the damage that smoking crack could do to body and soul.
And the role that racism plays in fueling crack cocaine markets?
Of the 4–4.5 million-plus crack users in the 1980s and 1990s, a majority were white. But the majority of hardcore users — addicts — were people of color, disproportionately African Americans. In part, their heavy use reflected the realities of an ever more bifurcated American economy.
In that era, record numbers of African Americans were joining the middle class. These were people, generally better educated and with more social capital, who were able to take advantage of the end of legal racial discrimination in the United States.
But for people of color who were less well-schooled, those whose lives had been most circumscribed by endemic racism and the generational poverty that such racism had produced, the 1980s were an era of de-industrialization and general job dislocation.
Were there other trends and factors that contributed to these developments?
There were. During this era of economic transformation, when low-skilled but decent-paying jobs — especially the kind of jobs long held by men — were disappearing from urban centers, drug use, most especially cheap, readily available crack cocaine, took root in poor black neighborhoods.
And, as noted, the young black men who lived in these economically hollowed-out neighborhoods saw drug sales as a rare economic opportunity. These poor black neighborhoods had long been sites of an underground economy that featured gang activities, extortion, unlicensed bars, chop shops, and many other illicit enterprises. Police, either because of corruption, indifference, or straight-up racism often ignored these black markets.
And how did law enforcement factor into all of this?
Residents of these neighborhoods were long accustomed to the racist attitudes of the police. So they had little or no incentive to cooperate with the police in taking down illegal markets, including. crack sales. Of course, many black ministers, politicians, and community activists fought both these criminal enterprises and racist policing but that was a fraught battle that still remains unresolved today.
Has the dark web impacted the continued rise of cocaine markets?
Crack cocaine, like every other illegal drug, can be bought and sold on the dark web. But the generally low price of the drug and the particular market segment the drug entices does not lend itself particularly to tech systems of distribution.
It’s a street corner drug that is, still today, primarily used by poorer people who like to binge on it. Such corner sales appear to be making a comeback in the last few years, in part as a response to the deadly horrors associated with opioid/heroin use.
And the opioid epidemic, how is that related?
Just as crack use declined dramatically in the late 1990s as young people saw the harm crack addiction had ravaged on so-called “crackheads,” so a new generation of drug users is looking toward alternatives to opioids. A number of communities have started to see an uptick in crack use — as well as increased use of meth.
What new developments do you see on the horizon over the next 12–18 months in terms of efforts to address the impact of crack in our communities?
Young drug users today have no memory of the dangers of crack addiction or the massive, merciless violence its illegal distribution fostered in so many poor, inner-city communities.
To ensure that crack use does not become an epidemic again in poor communities, public health officials will have their work cut out for them. Good, straightforward information on the dangers of crack use needs to be spread far and wide.