In When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era, journalist Donovan X. Ramsey tells an intimate, first-person account of one of America’s most misunderstood epidemics. His book—which is divided into eight acts, beginning with “The Origins” and ending with “Recovery”—offers what he calls a “narrative intervention” to demystify the myths that have circulated since the inauguration of Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs and the crack cocaine crisis of the 1980s and ’90s. Ramsey weaves together extensive archival research—concerning news coverage, backroom political machinations, crime statistics, and other trends in urban areas that shaped the era’s drug policy—with the personal histories of four of the epidemic’s survivors: Lennie Woodley, a former addict of nearly 30 years who is now a beloved addiction and substance abuse counselor in South Los Angeles; Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore; Elgin Swift, the son of an addict who grew up in crack-era New York; and Shawn McCray, a basketball coach and community activist who was formerly affiliated with the Newark-based drug-dealing outfit Zoo Crew.
Ramsey himself grew up poor and Black in Columbus, Ohio, during the crack epidemic and remembers being instructed to ignore that his community was “in the middle of an invisible war.” “It was like growing up in a steel town where nobody talked about steel,” he reflects in the book. In tracing how “tough on crime” policies were not only unsuccessful crisis-management models but also the instigators and accelerators of greater ills that disproportionately affected the Black community, Ramsey illustrates how the story of crack is the story of America. The book is intended both as a supplement and as a corrective to previous reporting on the crack epidemic that not only problematically racialized and sensationalized its coverage, but also left gaps in our national understanding. As Ramsey notes, “There are lessons in the crack epidemic for all of us.” I spoke with Ramsey about how the legacy of the era can be seen today in the steep racial disparities in drug sentencing and societal stigmas, and also how ’90s pop culture influenced the relationship that successive generations like the millennials—whom Ramsey refers to as “the children of the crack epidemic”—have with drugs.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Naomi Elias: This book tells the story of the crack epidemic, but from below. What was the appeal of approaching this subject from that narrative perspective?
Donovan X. Ramsey: The story of the epidemic had been told in bits and pieces, but almost always through the voices of policy experts and politicians, not necessarily the people who were directly impacted. It seemed to me that in order to paint the full picture, it was necessary to talk to people who were at the center of the harm of the period, and that was often Black and brown folks, poor folks, from major cities.
NE: Your research for this book spanned five years. Can you walk me through what that entailed? How did you land on the four people whose lives you chronicled?
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DXR: I was reading everything that I could that had been written in newspapers and magazines, government documents, and scientific records to just get a sense of “Is there a story here that hasn’t been told of how vulnerable people survived the crack epidemic?” From there, it was a matter of putting out a few calls through Facebook and Twitter, asking people who felt as though they had been impacted to reach out to me. I got back hundreds of responses, mostly from people who were the children of addicts and dealers. It was much harder to get someone like Kurt Schmoke, who was the mayor of a major city—Baltimore—during the period. He was not my first choice. My first choice was actually Andrew Young, who was mayor of Atlanta during the period, because I thought he was such a clear connection to the civil rights movement. But the more that I got to know about Kurt Schmoke, the more I realized that he was interesting and different from other mayors of his era in that he was the only one advocating for the decriminalization of drugs.
The other people came from going to groups for people in recovery. Lennie Woodley, for example, does drug counseling for Los Angeles County, and I was able to locate her through my network of people who were in recovery that told me I should meet her. Shawn McCray out of Newark, who was a dealer, is someone that’s been working in a basketball league for a while—and years ago I heard a part of his story, but I didn’t know the depths of it, and I was ultimately able to engage him in more conversations. Elgin Swift was a little bit harder. I was reluctant to include him because he was white, and I didn’t think that he necessarily fit the population of folks that I wanted to talk to. But the more that I got to know him, the more his and his father’s proximity to Blackness—proximity to where that harm was—helped me understand being racialized is something that doesn’t always fall cleanly along racial lines.
They all were very excited to tell their stories. It, of course, was a negotiation process, as it is with every source. As they start to relive things and to remember things, sometimes there’s a desire to pull back, and we navigated that. They all got to read every draft of the book, and that was very important to me. The people that I want to be the happiest with the book are those four.
NE: You write that the 1970s “marked the birth of America’s racial double standard on drugs” and that cocaine is the drug that best illustrates that. Could you briefly explain that double standard?
DXR: We use terms like “experimentation” for casual drug use by white people. White drug addicts are treated mostly as tragic figures who stayed at the party too long. People of color—Black people in particular—aren’t given that kind of grace and understanding. Take marijuana, for example: Black and white people use it at the same rate, but Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession. That’s a double standard. Cocaine illustrates it even better, because the “crackhead” caricature applied most often to drug users of color stands in such stark contrast to the glamorous image of white cocaine users that emerged in the ’70s. In my research, I came across dozens of ads for luxury cocaine paraphernalia—crystal vials, spoon pendants, gold razors—that ran in major fashion magazines. That was the ’70s, but the idea of powder cocaine as a glamour drug in white hands continues today. The idea of crack users as zombies continues, too, despite it being the same substance.
NE: Kurt Schmoke, whom you were talking about earlier, has a really interesting role in the book. You were talking about how he stood out as an early adopter of decriminalization as a strategy, and how he was addressing connected issues like illiteracy and poverty. But you also used him as a contrast with other states’ policies and with White House drug policy during the Nixon and Reagan administrations, which fueled the crack epidemic and mass incarceration. What do you make of the fact that so many of the architects of the crack epidemic are still in office and people like Kurt aren’t?
DXR: It’s disheartening to me—not just that they’re in office, but that while in office, they haven’t done much to repair the harm of the era. Joe Biden, for example, is one of the leading architects of our mass incarceration system—he was a part of leading really every crime bill since the early ’80s all the way up to the 1994 crime bill under Clinton. Biden has given apologies and said that he regrets his role in mass incarceration. But we still, for example, have an 18-to-1 disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. That’s something that he can end tomorrow; that’s a federal law. For me, the fact that those people are still elected is a symbol of the fact that they haven’t been held accountable. A part of that accountability is not just whether or not they stay in office, but also what they do if they want to stay in office.
NE: I found your exploration of “anti-crack hits”—popular rap and hip-hop music and movies, from Dr. Dre, N.W.A, Tupac, Spike Lee, and others, that portrayed the harsh realities of street dealing and addiction—really interesting. You argue they were an unlikely but effective usage reducer and tended to encourage marijuana use instead of cocaine. Statistics now reflect that millennials, whom you call “the children of the crack epidemic,” and Gen Z are more likely to use marijuana as a drug of choice. And so there was very effective messaging happening at the time, but it was happening through art instead of public policy. Why do you think Black music and films worked better as a community education and policing tool than stuff like Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” policy?
DXR: That was incredibly surprising to me. I grew up during the ’90s, and you often heard from those critiquing it that hip-hop was glamorizing street life. And the common refrain back then from rappers was that they were reflecting the reality. I always thought that was a little bit cliché, but that was before I went into the music, into the archives, and saw that rappers were rapping about crack as early as 1984, about three or four years before the mainstream media was reporting on it. Hip-hop was one of the areas where Black voices were mostly uninterrupted, so the messaging not only was more honest, but it also resonated with young people in a way that other messaging didn’t.
Journalism at the time was so overwhelmingly white and often so oppressive that the messages really went underground. I can speak from my own experience that the rappers that you love, you listen to those songs over and over again, and the words in them sometimes become like mantras. So the stuff that is not so positive can be really dangerous. But the stuff that is really progressive can have a huge benefit and be a huge help for young people—even the stuff that’s mixed, like the messaging on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which came out the year  that you see a huge decline in cocaine use in Black and Latino youth and a huge increase in marijuana use. The messaging there was mixed, but its messaging about crack was crystal clear: This is a path to destruction. I think that stuck.
Likewise, those films helped me to understand that era of what we in the Black community call “hood movies.” There was a whole period during the ’80s and ’90s with movies like Boyz n the Hood that were typically about a group of young men dealing with life in urban America. That was really a hip-hop kind of filmmaking. It gave me a new appreciation for people like Spike Lee and John Singleton and the Hughes brothers.
NE: This book is obviously about the crack epidemic, but it’s also about community. You refer to yourself early on as a “community project.” What, if anything, did you learn about community while working on When Crack Was King and being in community with the heroes of the book?
DXR: I’ve learned that community, for marginalized people, is really often the best thing that we have. Community is the safety net; community is the harm reduction. The things that community can give you are typically what keeps you from death. People can’t give you a wraparound service to get clean and to get housed and all of that, but what they can give you is a place to sleep for the night. You had grandparents that took in grandchildren, churches that did gun buy-back programs or bailed out people that had been incarcerated or jailed for drug crimes. And that, again, is the difference between life and death for many of us. I’m emphatic that we have to invest in community at every level—individually, socially, our government. We have to look at where those community interventions were [during the epidemic] and reinforce those. Intervention is at the community level.