Reviewed by Kim Hewitt
In Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed, David Farber does dual duty—first recapping contemporary drug policies and then tracing the US history of cocaine use and cocaine business operations. The book might serve as an introductory text in a drug policy class, but it could also enliven studies in entrepreneurship and small business management.
Farber provides a detailed examination of how in the late eighties and early nineties the cocaine trade transmuted itself both domestically and globally into crack dealing, a highly visible and troubling feature of life in major American cities. A rock solid form of powdered cocaine, crack, rather than being snorted, could more conveniently be smoked.
In his unique analysis of crack as a business, Farber compares operations in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Within the economic context of each location, he provides a sense of the variations in organizational structures, street business policies, and leadership styles. Marketing strategies, violence conducted in the name of competition, and police responses are also considered. In this business-oriented approach, crack dealing comes across as old-fashioned “cut throat capitalism.”
As a sidelight, the connection between crack, gangs, and hip-hop have, to my knowledge, never been so well documented. While “Freeway” Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Tupac, and Biggie Smalls are the best-known names in Farber’s story, he offers stories of the business acumen of less well-known rappers and dealers.
Farber’s analysis of the interplay between crack and other illicit substances used recreationally is briefly couched within the context of an array of theories on the development of the underclass and the deindustrializing U.S. economy. In his balanced view, the devastating effects of crack on impoverished urban neighborhoods fell short of being the massive epidemic depicted in the mainstream media. What happened was bad enough. Farber details the rise in the eighties of African American infant mortality, the increase in the number of African American children put into foster care, and rising urban homicide rates. These trends are set within the context of Ronald Reagan’s cuts to funding for public housing. Chapter 5, “Crackdown: The Politics and Laws of Drug Enforcement,” offers a particularly detailed recounting of the politics and effects of the federal 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which in a city like Chicago became a travesty in the way drug cases were handled.
Drawing on newspaper accounts, interviews, and other sources, Farber comes across as a strong storyteller, fashioning a nuts-and-bolts account of the crack industry into a folk narrative detailing how alliances were formed, how crack distribution was managed, and how incarcerated leaders of illicit drug operations garnered power and support and even managed customer relations. Particularly captivating is Chapter 4, “Manhood in the Age of Greed,” Farber’s inside look at the spending proclivities of the young men who got rich in the crack industry. A deeper analysis of African American masculinity would have enriched his analysis. Farber’s chronicle of money-laundering, the club scene, fancy clothes, jewelry, cars, and guns favored by big-time crack dealers may call to mind The Wire, David Simon’s HBO show in which dealer Avon Barksdale laundered money and intimidated rivals as he embodied “thug life.” Meanwhile, his right-hand man, Stringer Bell, after attending business classes to learn the principles of marketing, tries to enter the legitimate world of real estate.
Farber insightfully (albeit sparsely) contextualizes the crack culture within the Reagan era’s deregulation of business, massive wealth accumulation, conspicuous consumption, and aggressive military policies. He continues with a discussion of policies under Bush and Clinton, with special attention to Joe Biden, who argued for the tougher crime policies that resulted in the increased incarceration of minorities.
At times, Farber exhibits a trenchant, ironic sharpness in quoting, for example, an appreciative Donald Trump on how young crack hustlers demonstrated their sense of entitlement in exploiting women. By and large, however, women are missing from this history, except for brief mention of those who prostituted themselves to feed families or who worked as smuggling mules. It might have been interesting if Farber had delved into the situation of working women in the underground and above-ground economies of the eighties and early nineties.
In succinctly presenting a thorough look at the political, economic, and cultural contexts for the crack enterprise, Farber concludes that the players who decided to sell crack were rational actors in a culture of “entrepreneurial greed.” In the end, we may begin to wonder how the dealer in the hood might be distinguished from the dealer in Big Pharma’s executive suite.
Kim Hewitt is a professor of American History and American Culture at SUNY Empire State College. Her areas of expertise include body studies, psychedelic studies, post -World War II culture, and the War on Drugs. She has published cultural analysis of various topics including body modification, marital arts, mental illness, psychedelic feminism, and the history and meaning of altered states of consciousness.
Featured image (at top): The crack epidemic affected American culture in profound ways and inspired Keith Haring to paint his famous “Crack is Wack” mural in this New York City playground. Istolethetv, “crack_is_wack_playground” (May 2006), Flickr.