The press stirred up hysteria about black “junkies” and cheered draconian police responses to crack cocaine.
In contrast to the lock-’em-up response to black drug users in the 1980s, the collective reaction to the ongoing opioid epidemic has been largely compassionate.
In contrast to the lock-’em-up response to black drug users in the 1980s, the collective reaction to the ongoing opioid epidemic has been largely compassionate.
Andrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images

Readers of this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine will be greeted by an arresting image of a cherub in a creamy white tutu. The baby tilts chubby cheeks slightly, her blue eyes questioning the viewer as she perches on her mother’s lap. Her mother sits folded on a thick carpet in blue jeans, and her face is obscured by locks of straight blond hair.

“Children of the Epidemic,” the cover reads. “In the midst of a national opioid crisis, mothers addicted to drugs struggle to get off them — for their babies’ sake, and for their own.”

It’s a powerful image framed in a soft white glow meant to evoke purity, innocence and the need for protection. These media narratives and similarly evocative images in a pop-up memorial to opioid users on the National Mall in Washington — part of the National Safety Council’s “Stop Everyday Killers” campaign — are fitting tributes to the human toll of an awful disease.

But to this longtime resident of D.C., once known as the “murder capital,” this testament to squandered human potential was also a painful reminder of something else: the lack of empathy black people face in this country when it comes to how we understand and address complex social problems.

Many have noted the striking contrast between the lock-’em-up response to black drug users in the 1980s and our current largely compassionate collective reaction to the opioid epidemic, which is largely imagined as a white affliction. In doing that, it’s essential to hold the press accountable for its role in stirring up hysteria about black “junkies” and uncritically cheering draconian responses. There is nothing we can do about the past, but there are things that journalists can do to get it right in the future.

Years ago in graduate school, I conducted a study that looked at local news coverage of the rise of crack cocaine in the 1980s in D.C. It is stunning to review this research and compare the coverage to stirring tales of white suffering amid the opioid crisis.

“It’s essential to hold the press accountable for its role in stirring up hysteria about black ‘junkies.’”

Sensational stories like those on the tragic death of University of Maryland star Len Bias, who died of a cocaine overdose while celebrating being drafted to the NBA in 1986, ruled the local and national news. That panic prompted Congress that year to rush legislation that created 100-to-1 disparities in sentences for possession of crack versus powdered cocaine.

Crack and powdered cocaine are pharmacologically the same drug, and neither makes users more violent than other drugs, as University of California sociologist Craig Reinarman pointed out. The primary differences were the race and class of the drugs’ users. Barack Obama’s administration finally ended the last of the cocaine sentencing disparities in 2010 under pressure from civil rights groups. But that was after whole chunks of black America were sent to prison and decades of this false narrative of black pathology and addiction ran unchecked.

We are still dealing with the legacy of 1980s media accounts of the drug and violence epidemic and so-called crack babies that we now know were simply false. Typically when reporters noted that police suspected drugs were involved in a crime, that was essentially the end of the story. There was not as much hand-wringing about gun regulations or where the drugs came from. We didn’t see the same tone of compassionate concern about the complex economic and societal reasons so many people succumbed to addiction. If drugs were involved in a death, the implication seemed to be that victims probably deserved it.

Phrases like “black-on-black violence” became weaponized; they were indictments of black victims and abdications of the responsibility to help them, all rolled into one. These depictions permanently shaped perceptions of what the problem was, who was to blame for it and who should solve it. As law enforcement budgets skyrocketed in the war on drugs, police told self-interested accounts of what was going on to reporters. These stories emphasized their dominance and control through the sheer number of arrests and convictions.

“Phrases like ‘black-on-black violence’ were indictments of black victims and abdications of the responsibility to help them, all rolled into one.”

A key factor that we now know shaped this coverage was the pressure law enforcement was under then to meet quotas in the war on drugs targeting urban areas, as Michelle Alexander pointed out in The New Jim Crow. Washington, “the Chocolate City,” was ground zero for this push, thanks to its symbolism, federal presence and large black population. Well-meaning policymakers — white and black, local and national — felt compelled to act dramatically as drug dealers ravaged cities in violent feuds over spectacular drug profits.

When I was reporter covering youth culture for The Washington Post, starting in 1999, I was surprised by how many of the young men I interviewed had some sort of criminal record. They told me fantastic tales about why. Some of the young men told me that cops just lie. If they couldn’t get a suspect, they would go nab his brother instead. When it was quota time, it was best to stay off the streets, because you could get rounded up and thrown in jail.

I was doubtful at the time, but Alexander’s analysis reveals the basic truth of this dynamic, which led the United States to become the top jailer in the world. By 1995, 1 in 3 young black males was in the justice system, and 90 percent of the people serving in state prisons for drug possession were black or Latino.

There is a cozy and mutually manipulative relationship between newsrooms and law enforcement. As a rule, reporters believe police more than civilians. Telling the story of black communities from the vantage point of the police who see them at their worst moments painted the picture of black people as deviant and pathological. These stories shaped the notion that black youths are not deserving of empathy, rehabilitation and economic opportunity. For decades, policymakers failed to seriously address the loss of human potential through addiction, overdose and incarceration.

“As a rule, reporters believe police more than civilians.”

Dehumanizing press depictions of and lack of empathy for black communities are not new. But they are why lots of black communities still don’t trust the news media. This in turn makes it hard for the media to report well on black communities. And this makes it hard to develop an appropriate policy response to black suffering.

Given the glut of video recordings of police dishonesty and other revelations, most Americans have ample proof that law enforcement officials are not always reliable narrators. Like our commander in chief, some outright lie. So what can the press do? We need to ban phrases like “black-on-black crime” unless we give equal treatment to the white-on-white offenders in equally segregated white communities.

When it comes to law enforcement officials, journalists must apply the same treatment they are trained to give their own mothers: If they tell you something, check it out. Don’t be so quick to air (or believe) footage of the perp walk that feeds your worst suspicions about who black people are.

And if all else fails, just try to imagine if how you’d tell the story if the person in question were white.

Natalie Hopkinson is the author of A Mouth Is Always Muzzled.

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