You hear it everywhere: “We were acting like crackheads”; “That’s some crackhead behavior”; “It’s crackhead hour!” The word crackhead is typically used to describe sporadic, loud and risky behavior that is often seen from those experiencing something akin to the symptoms of crack cocaine use — without the crack itself. It’s become part of our vernacular, but those who throw the word crackhead into conversation fail to acknowledge that it’s a racist callback to the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the War on Drugs that came with it.
The fact that we have adopted this term with no sense of awareness of its past is irresponsible. We are a generation with a reputation for being concerned with accountability, it seems hypocritical that we continue to use the term crackhead without acknowledging its history. It is even more careless that we ignore the irreparable damage that the crack epidemic and War on Drugs had on the black community — effects that still plague what is arguably the U.S.’s most vulnerable and marginalized population.
The War on Drugs began in the U.S. during the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon increased federal funding for drug control agencies and treatment efforts. However, when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the War on Drugs dramatically escalated. Reagan’s focus shifted from treatment to criminal punishment, which led to a spike in incarceration rates for nonviolent drug offenders — from 50,000 in 1980 to 380,000 in 1989. His policies put the U.S. at the forefront of incarceration rates in the world. The extreme media coverage of the crack epidemic was a major component in the expansion of the War on Drugs. People were scared, and Reagan took advantage of that anxiety to launch his anti-drug initiatives — like Nancy Reagan’s“Just Say No” campaign. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, increasing funding for the War and establishing a series of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses. And this is when claims that the War on Drugs was a racist institution began.
The claims were legitimate. The mandatory minimums established by the Anti-Drug Act would automatically give those found with five grams of crack a five-year prison sentence — the same sentence that applied for 500 grams of cocaine. A person who possessed five grams of crack cocaine, an amount too small to be sold on a mass scale, would get the same sentence as a powder cocaine dealer — creating a 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Approximately 80% of crack users were black, while most cocaine users were white. This demonstrates the disparity between the number of black people convicted for drug possession and that of white people.
One of Nixon’s top aides, John Ehrlichman, admitted that declaring a war on drugs was a political tool to get the public to “associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin,” then criminalize the use of both drugs to “arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.” Congress itself has acknowledged how the War on Drugs failed when they introduced a bill in 2018 acknowledging that the policies implemented failed to reduce drug use and failed entire communities instead.
The War on Drugs is the largest contributor to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the U.S. based on the statistics. Although the War on Drugs is no longer waged with the same intensity as it was in the 80s, it’s a phenomenon we still witness.
The term crackhead makes light of a period where racial discrimination found yet another way to thrive in the criminal justice system. The word highlights the specific struggles of historically marginalized communities that were — and still are — targeted, persecuted and punished for drug addiction and possession.
Before adding the word crackhead to your vocabulary, consider its history. It’s trendy, I know — I’ve said it too. But we need to stop. It is disrespectful towards the communities that suffered deeply due to possession of this drug in the past, it is offensive to the people who struggle with addiction to this substance today and it is inconsiderate towards the people who still face disproportionate punishments for drug offenses due to their race.
The English language is vast enough for you to choose a word that does not have a history of racist connotations. Try mad, erratic, idiotic or my personal favorites: loony, nutter, screwball and wacky.
Granted, some words we use every day were once incredibly intolerant. Perhaps crackhead may someday become part of that vocabulary without affecting or insulting an entire community and its past. But slurs should not become part of our day-to-day language. Not enough time has passed for the effects of the 1980s to be forgotten or ignored — 20% of all incarcerated people are in prison for a drug offense, and 451,000 of these offenses are nonviolent. These words were born out of hatred, fueled by racist ideals and popularized by racist circumstances. It’s true that words only have the power we grant them, but they also carry the weight of the context we form them out of, and that should be evaluated and respected.
Email Sophia Martinez at [email protected]