cover image When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era

When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era

Donovan X. Ramsey. One World, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-0-525-51180-9

In his illuminating debut, journalist Ramsey interweaves a history of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s with the stories of four people who lived through it, demonstrating how a racist and overly punitive government response added to the trauma of addiction endured by many Black Americans. His profile subjects include Lennie Woodley of Los Angeles, whose crack addiction led to prostitution before she got sober and became a substance abuse counselor, and Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first Black mayor and an early advocate for decriminalizing drug offenses. Along the way, Ramsey shows how the moral panic around crack “continue[s] to distort the image of Black communities.” For example, he tracks the rise of hysteria around “crack babies,” which was based on a study of only 23 women that was later disproved in studies with larger sample sizes. He also revisits the link between the Iran-Contra affair with crack distribution in the U.S., which was substantiated by the 1989 report on the findings of the Kerry Committee, a three-year effort led by Senator John Kerry that also revealed efforts by government officials to cover up the connection. But Ramsey’s focus remains on the injustice of the response to addiction, not its cause: “The crack epidemic was not the product of an anti-Black conspiracy but the product of an anti-Black system.” It’s an essential reconsideration of a troubling era. (July)