On the first day of an investigative journalism class I took several years ago, the professor handed out a news story titled “Jimmy’s World,” published by The Washington Post in September 1980. The professor gave us no instruction other than to read the roughly 2,000 words to ourselves. Written by Janet Cooke, the piece begins with an unusual description, both grisly and tender, of a Black boy from D.C. named Jimmy. “Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict,” Cooke wrote, “a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”
After we read, the professor recounted the story’s reception: “Jimmy’s World” was syndicated in newspapers from coast to coast (meaning it went viral, ’80s style); the next year, the piece won Cooke and The Post a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Then, the professor gave a wry smile and told the class that there never was any Jimmy. The article and all its lurid details were fake. Cooke returned the Pulitzer. For posterity, the story can still be read online, though now with a disclaimer that it was a fabrication.
That day’s lesson was meant to teach us, in journalism parlance, about stories that are “too good to check.” In “When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era,” journalist Donovan X. Ramsey finds an altogether different lesson from “Jimmy’s World.” The fiasco wasn’t merely an embarrassing lapse in journalistic rigor, nor was it just a case of editors being taken for a ride by a fabulist. “Cooke gave her bosses at the Post and its readers something they couldn’t resist,” Ramsey writes. “A story that confirmed all their worst ideas of the ghetto, written by the right kind of Black person.” Who needed to fact-check “Jimmy’s World” when everybody was so sure it existed, Ramsey asks the reader in his deeply personal, panoramic political history of Black America, crack cocaine, and the disastrous drug laws and policies that are still on the books.
In retrospect, the timing of Jimmy’s fable feels haunting. That people were so eager to believe the outlandish story presaged what was to come in the 1980s and 1990s: a frenzy of sensational hype about crack cocaine that presented a whole universe of racist lore under the authority of credible news outlets. During the crack era, the American public consumed a steady diet of “crack babies,” “crackheads,” “crack houses,” a “bio-underclass” and threats of “superpredators” invading a suburb near you. When White people snorted powder cocaine, it was glamorous. When Black people smoked crack, it was dangerous.
Ramsey’s debut work of nonfiction is a master class in disrupting a stubborn narrative, a monumental feat for the fraught subject of addiction in Black communities. The misapprehension of crack cocaine was widespread and paved the way for staggering injustices. The most basic properties of crack were misreported, like the idea that it was an altogether different drug than powder cocaine. That bit of hype led to the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses, which meant that just five grams of crack triggered the same penalty as 500 grams of powder. Rather than abandon the differential sentencing, the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced it, inexplicably, to 18-to-1.
It was Black women, in particular Black moms and their children, who bore the brunt of what Ramsey describes as the national media’s “full-blown panic over crack babies.” From Newsweek to Rolling Stone to the New York Times and The Post, each outlet upstaged the next with exploitative stories. As Ramsey puts it, “The myth of the crack baby was widely accepted as gospel, it seems, because it mapped so well onto existing ideas of Black biological inferiority and cultural pathology, and it stoked anxieties regarding violent crime and the cost of America’s social safety net.” He goes on to add: “The crack baby myth stuck, along with other myths of the crack era. That they persist and continue to distort the image of Black communities is an insult on top of the actual injury of the epidemic — trauma that has largely gone unacknowledged and is being passed down through generations.”
Ramsey, born in 1987, came of age during the crack epidemic. By the time he was old enough to notice the older kids standing on the corner, crack was an economy unto itself in his Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood. Yet adults (and who could blame them) did not want to speak of it: “It was like growing up in a steel town where nobody talked about steel,” he writes.
It’s obvious through Ramsey’s curious, introspective and inquisitive narration that the subject is personal to him. He grew up fearing drug users and drug dealers, a message reinforced by the news media, Hollywood and propagandistic television segments. But part of him knew that they, too, were fearful, in pain and grieving.
He carefully peels back layer after layer to reveal who and what are responsible for the destruction of the crack era. As he researched the book, Ramsey found that, as with so many epidemics in America, Black communities were hit first and hit worst. “The crack epidemic was not the product of an anti-Black conspiracy but the product of an anti-Black system,” he writes. It took numerous American institutions working in concert: politicians, presidents, law enforcement, science, medicine, housing, finance and indeed, the news media. Each played a role in creating and reinforcing an atmosphere of anti-Black racism and paved the way for, in Ramsey’s words, “the U.S. government’s unbelievably wrongheaded approach to eradicating drug use in America.” The approach favored (and still favors) aggressive enforcement and excessive punishment in the form of incarceration. To this day shocking racial disparities exist in American jails and prisons.
All that aggressive policing and enforcement failed to prevent yet another drug epidemic from taking America by storm. Today, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have fully dethroned crack cocaine. Ramsey’s history of the crack epidemic clarifies that there will always be another drug around the corner. Surges of drug use seem to occur in America with such regularity that the word “epidemic” — meant to describe something sudden and novel — feels misused. Drugs are a fact of life that we continue to deny.
Though many crack-era laws remain on the books, and many politicians still cling to ineffective drug enforcement strategies, there are differences between then and now, between crack and opioids. Most noticeable is a softening of public perceptions of drug users. This is thanks in no small part to the notion that most opioid users today are White, even though, as Ramsey points out, that was also true of crack cocaine. Opioid users are also understood to be suffering from pain, whether physical or psychic. And pain is a condition to be treated rather than punished. Whereas opioid users have a plethora of external culprits they can blame for their addiction — greedy corporations, the Sackler family, corrupt doctors — Black crack users weren’t granted the same sympathy. Economists did not write books and papers labeling addiction as a “disease of despair” until working-class Whites began to overdose in unprecedented fashion.
Ramsey’s effort to set the record straight is most poignant on this front. He thoroughly documents the dire social and material conditions, the deep pain, that were tied up in Black addiction, as he answers this question: “Who were we before crack?” He asks why families and neighborhoods that looked like his were so susceptible to the ephemeral high. How do drugs always seem to find the same fault lines in American society? He lands on a moving answer:
“As the 1980s approached, it seemed America was a nation unwilling to make social, political, and economic room for its Black citizens. Their backs were against the wall and their neighborhoods were ready to explode. All it would take was a catalyst, and cocaine seemed tailor-made for the moment. The stimulant was associated with pleasure and escape. It flooded the brain with dopamine, leaving users feeling euphoric. It was the ideal drug for a grief-stricken people.”
Thanks to Ramsey’s diligent work, the crack era no longer feels distant and fragmented. In vivid and often infuriating detail, “When Crack Was King” reveals that the pain of drug addiction is both highly particular and universal. Addiction is malleable, contingent and occurs among certain people who live in particular places, at specific times. Rather than try to live in a “drug-free world,” the goal should be to make the world a less painful place. Ramsey’s gift to us is bearing witness to that pain.
Zachary Siegel is a writer in Chicago.
When Crack Was King
A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era
By Donovan X. Ramsey
One World. 448 pp. $30