David Farber


On his book Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed

Cover Interview of November 06, 2019

In a nutshell

Crack tells the story of the young men who bet their lives on the rewards of selling “rock” cocaine, the people who gave themselves over to the crack pipe, and the often merciless authorities who incarcerated legions of African Americans caught in the crack cocaine underworld.

Based on interviews, archival research, judicial records, underground videos, and prison memoirs, Crack explains why, in a de-industrializing America in which good paying, dignified jobs in inner cities were rare, selling rock cocaine made cold, hard sense to a broad cohort of young men. The crack industry was a lucrative enterprise for the “Horatio Alger boys” of their place and time, especially in an era in which market forces ruled and entrepreneurial risk-taking was celebrated.

These young, predominately African American entrepreneurs were profit-sharing partners in a deviant, criminal form of economic globalization. Like their mostly legit counterparts in 1980s and 1990s America (e.g., Donald Trump and his “Art of the Deal”), they embraced the “creative destruction” that was simultaneously tearing apart communities and reinventing American capitalism.

Hip Hop artists often celebrated the exploits of the crack kingpins and their crews. Biggie Smalls laid out “The Ten Crack Commandments” for aspiring dealers. In “Kilo,” Ghostface Killah of the Wu Tang Klan explained the joy of moving weight and reaping the benefits of seemingly unattainable wealth. For some of their peers, crack dealers were the neighborhood Robin Hoods. They were the “social bandits” of their economically beat-down streets.

Overwhelmingly, Americans—across racial lines—did not take so kindly to the crack dealers and “crackheads.” Crack dealers defended their drug selling territories with unvarnished violence. Homicide rates soared in poor, inner city neighborhoods. Innocents were caught in the crossfire. Crack addicts robbed, stole, and prostituted themselves to pay for their rocks. Poor people were prey for crack dealers; families and neighbors in poor communities paid the heaviest price for the localized crack epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s.

Americans, fueled by fear and sometimes hysteria, cracked down on the sale and use of rock cocaine. Congress, supported by presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, passed draconian federal laws that punished crack dealers with sentences that often exceeded those handed out to murders and rapists. State and local authorities followed suit. Authorities spent billions to build a merciless system of mass incarceration. Overwhelmingly, that punishing carceral machinery targeted black Americans.

Crack takes a hard look at the dark side of late twentieth century capitalism. It examines how an explosive mix of deviant globalization, racial inequities, and the war on drugs shattered American society.