The White Gaze is Killing Us: The Crack Epidemic

Crack First Emerges 

In 1980, powder cocaine first emerged in Miami, but its over-saturation of the market resulted in an 80% drop of its value—forcing drug dealers to get creative to see profits. Subsequently, the illicit drug was transformed from powder to rock, creating crack cocaine. The first reports of crack cocaine availability and use came out during 1981, reflecting a sudden surge and spread of the smoke-able drug in Los Angeles, Oakland, Miami, Houston, and the Caribbean. (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration 1)

It is important to note that purity levels for all cocaine products were extremely high during this time. In fact, the average purity level for crack cocaine was higher than powder cocaine, with purity levels over 80% for crack cocaine and only 55% for the powdered form. (NNICC 31)

As time progressed, the kilogram price for cocaine gradually decreased, making the street prices much lower. According to the The National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee (NNICC), the purity levels remained around 90% on the wholesale level, while purity rates continued to increase on the street level. (31)

The White Gaze’s Influence 

These shifts in purity levels and price coincided with a surge in crack availability in specific cities across America, such as: New York City, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore, Portland, Detroit, and Chicago. (U.S. Drug Enforcement

1982, Detroit, Michigan, USA — A member of Detroit’s Gang Squad, an undercover group of vigilantes focused on juvenile gangs, frisks a group of men as they stand against their car in a parking lot. — Image by © David Turnley/Corbis

Administration 7) Notably, each of these  cities had large low-socioeconomic populations that were predominantly African-American and Latinx.  (Freyer 6)

The significance of this cannot be understated— for the white gaze has a direct role in how communities of color are represented in media, and subsequently treated by society. Since the white gaze has been institutionalized in society, any media coverage will automatically be given with the deceptive filter of the white gaze. This means that communities of color are overrepresented as aggressive and criminal and underrepresented as law abiding citizens. (Watkins 2)

In a study of television news, researchers found media coverage involving cocaine use and violent behavior during the 80’s typically depicted African American youth as pathological threats to society. (Reeves & Campbell 60)

Police visit apartment of Addie Waters, a mother who is addicted to crack cocaine and lives in crack house with her 6 year old son, Dooney Waters. (AP Photos)

This reaction to the crack epidemic by the media highlights how the white gaze results in African-Americans being represented as nefarious individuals, deserving of further marginalization through incarceration, rather than as mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, or friends. Furthermore, the inaccurate representation of African-Americans that permeated the crack epidemic influenced how policymakers approached finding solutions to it.

In the mid 80’s, this “solution” to the crack epidemic finally came to fruition through President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs. Rather than approaching addiction as a public health issue, the War on Drugs issued in the criminalization of drug addiction in American politics. The legislation that followed had detrimental effects on all communities of color, but especially the African-American community.

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