Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, And The Decade Of Greed

Author: David Farber
Publisher: Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 222p.
Reviewers: Britta Crandall and Russell Crandall | February 2021

David Farber, now a seasoned historian at the University of Kansas, spent the early part of his career—the 1980s—living and working in New York City and Philadelphia. This was, of course, the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and, in the case of the city of brotherly love, Farber found himself living next-door to a low-level crack dealer. These and other sorts of searing crack-related memories helped drive the scholar to produce his searing, accessible, and necessary history of this heinous drug: Crack.

Farber sets the chilling stage by reminding us of the effects of crack cocaine usage in the 1980s and early 1990s, above all in minority dominant inner-cities from Oakland to Baltimore. Sometimes sold at a dollar or two a “rock” (or hit), the drug “poisoned bodies, ravaged minds, ripped apart families, and tore jagged holes in communities.” (4) Farber criticizes politicians on both sides of the aisle who rather than treat the epidemic as a public health crisis, “poured gasoline on the fires of despair and anomie that had sparked the crack outbreak.” (4)

The last two parts of the author’s subtitle — “street capitalism” and the “decade of greed” are the heart of his study. Predominantly black boys and young men who got into the business of selling “rock” were swept up in a global free-market enterprise at the height of Reagan’s neoliberal revolution. (Think of the raw source of cocaine, coca, a commodity originating in the Andes, cooked into cocaine in a clandestine lab, and smuggled to el norte to be sold). Farber’s wrenching thesis is that global capitalism, more specifically de-industrializing late 20th century America, is what led these “Horatio Alger boys” to jump into the business of crack. The author quotes an African-American who, after serving a decade behind bars, returned to now circa mid 1980s hometown of the South Side of Chicago. “What do you expect, when you’ve got a whole subsection of unemployed people? When mills is closing down? When General Motors and Ford is acting crazy? They got kids at home and here comes some white gold. What do you think they are going to do? Man, they are going to take it and they are going to sell it. And try to provide for their families and their kids.” (1) In the end, Farber expresses deep antipathy for the system that set the stage for the crack epidemic, and turning it “into a national tragedy of racial injustice and cruelty.” (4)

Farber acknowledges that black community and political leaders were often vociferous supporters of the most punitive punishment against crack dealing and usage in their own neighborhoods. This reveiwer would have liked to see him explore this topic with the same indignant intensity he does with the rest of the book. Indeed, as far back as the early 1970s, the Congressional Black Congress was furiously lobbying regional and national officials—including Mr. War on Drugs himself, President Richard Nixon—to do something about drugs in their communities. At this point the most nefarious substance was heroin, not crack, but an antipathy to drug dealing in ghettos was something that these residents had despised for decades, whether or not the General Motors plant had moved to Mexico. Yes, to understand crack, you must remember “It’s the economy, stupid”. But maybe it wasn’t all about the economy. Heroin, for one, did its dirty work on inner-cites in the 60s and 70s, which then made these communities vulnerable to crack in the 1980s.

Russell Crandall is a professor in the Political Science Department at Davidson College

 Britta Crandall is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at Davidson College

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