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Donovan X. Ramsey's book is a 'people's history' of the cocaine epidemic


One of Donovan X. Ramsey's earliest childhood memories was of Michelle from down the street.

DONOVAN X RAMSEY: Every night as I was falling asleep, she would start, you know, her activity. And that consisted of playing loud music. She loved "If Only You Knew" by Patti LaBelle, and she would play it on a loop. And I felt connected to her. And I, you know, came to understand as I got older that she was dealing with addiction, that she was a crack addict.

RASCOE: Decades later, he's written a book called "When Crack Was King: A People's History Of A Misunderstood Era." It's a work of nonfiction told through the eyes of several people, including an addict, a drug dealer and a politician. He begins the book by describing the lives of the people before crack cocaine hit their neighborhoods.

RAMSEY: That was super important to me as somebody whose community was impacted by this as a, you know, a Black person, as a Black journalist, because our lives are often treated as though they have no context and no meaning. So being a child of the '80s - I was born in 1987 - I have never existed in a world where crack did not exist. And I desperately wanted to know what my community was like before crack.

RASCOE: I have to say, I was really struck by the story of Shawn because Shawn grew up in the exact same projects in Newark as my dad and his family. So hearing the story of crack in Newark was extremely close to home for me. But tell me about Shawn, because he got involved in another side of the crack epidemic, which - he became a dealer.

RAMSEY: Yeah. Shawn McCray - you know, born in the early '70s. He grows up in the projects, right? And he's a part of - what people don't realize - an incredible community in the projects. And you can't, you know, stack hundreds of people on top of each other and not create a community.

He ended up - despite having a very promising academic career and getting a scholarship to play basketball all through Catholic school and into college, he was still drawn into that street life because of his connection to his community. And also because as a young man growing up in the 80s, he had such a desire for more. And crack was this incredible opportunity for guys like him to make some real money. So, you know, I liken Shawn to young white men who went west during the gold rush, that he was doing something incredibly risky and I think many would say dangerous and stupid, but because it gave him a possibility for something that he wouldn't have otherwise.

RASCOE: I feel like what you capture with Shawn was something that I think that a lot of people don't fully understand, which is, like, for him to have really left, he would have really had to leave his community.

RAMSEY: It was really important for me with Shawn to kind of pull back the veil of the superpredator myth. Hillary Clinton very infamously, you know, was on camera giving a speech about how young Black men that were selling drugs were superpredators who, quote, "needed to be brought to heel." And the truth about Shawn is that he was just an average kid who saw a way out. And anybody that's come from tough neighborhood like I did, like Shawn did, like many Black folks in America do, that you are told that your goal should be to get out of your neighborhood. And no one that makes that your goal ever accounts for the isolation, the loneliness...


RAMSEY: ...Of having to be the only one, being the first one...


RAMSEY: ...In every room that you go in for the rest of your life. And he wanted to stay connected to his friends. Most drug dealers were not kingpins. They were making enough money to buy a car, to pay their mom's rent. And that was Shawn's position. And I think that - you know, that's not to excuse the fact that he was selling poison, something that he grappled with, but those were the options available to him.

RASCOE: When you think about the crack epidemic, the way that it hit particularly Black neighborhoods - like, it's difficult to even, like, wrap your head around. How do you count the cost of that?

RAMSEY: You know, it is, I think, nearly impossible to even measure the devastation when you think about all that our cities could have been and all that our communities could have been had it not been for crack. But I think that despite of our inability to measure crack's impact, there are some clear things that we owe the people who survived it as a way of trying to repair the damage that we can measure, like sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that still exists despite the fact that those substances are chemically identical, that they're the same substance. We owe it to the folks that lost so much to end that. We owe it to those folks to end mandatory minimum sentences. We also owe it to those people to fight back against the fear and the shame that created a space for drug abuse and addiction in the first place but that also created a space for a completely draconian response.

RASCOE: Do you think that much has changed since then? We're currently in the middle of another drug epidemic with opioids and fentanyl. And if so, do you think it's because the nature of this epidemic is so different?

RAMSEY: If I can be completely frank...

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah, please.

RAMSEY: There is a lot more compassion for opioid addicts now because the face of opioid addiction is white folks in the middle of the country. I think that's just - that that's just true, that the average American feels much closer to that addict than they did to the crack addict. And the shame of it is that addiction is addiction. And also that because we refuse to have compassion for crack addicts, we missed an opportunity to fix the problem - right? - that people who are struggling with opioid addiction now and don't have the services and resources they need in place don't have them because we didn't have a public health response to crack, because all that we created was this huge dragnet that we applied across communities of color. So now white folks are getting caught up in that dragnet, and now everybody thinks, OK, we got to do something about this. And I hope that we do because wrong is wrong and right is right.

RASCOE: Do you feel like the lessons of the crack epidemic have really been fully learned?

RAMSEY: No, they haven't. Just because there might be more compassion for drug users and drug addicts doesn't mean that we're smarter about policy solutions. It doesn't mean that we are more diligent - right? - about sticking to what we know is right, that that fear and that shame can always come in and confuse people. What I see is this reinvigoration of the culture wars that villainizes and criminalizes the most vulnerable people.

RASCOE: That's Donovan X. Ramsey, the author of "When Crack Was King." Thank you so much for being with us.

RAMSEY: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.