When I began researching grassroots responses to crack-cocaine I found myself—albeit naively—both surprised and confused by heavy-handed, aggressive calls for more policing and harsher sentencing from working and middle class black urbanites. Was this unique to the period? Did this represent a specific and different response to the marketing invention of crack? Moreover, I found myself asking: What motivated calls to stigmatize and scapegoat members of their own local communities? Why would local leaders deliberately attract negative attention to their already beleaguered districts, thereby further perpetuating negative stereotypes regarding the debasement of inner-city culture? Where were the progressive voices calling for moderate, rational, public health responses?
In earlier posts, I have begun to explain this reaction through the lens of black-lash. Much like working class white ethnics before them, working and middle-class blacks responded to what they deemed destructive and dangerous changes to their neighborhood and organized in efforts for reform to “take back their streets”. Steeped in the language of victimhood and citizenship, these local activists made battles over crime and drugs battles of good versus evil. The war against pushers, panhandlers, pimps and hoodlums would be about protecting the decent, innocent citizens held captive in their own neighborhoods. Finally, black-lash—much like white backlash—came to be motivated in part by a perceived threat to group progress. Working and middle class blacks viewed youth and street culture manifested by the drug trade as a clear threat to gains made under the Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, the use of the term black-lash has given me some pause for two reasons. First, black-lash is less clearly and directly motivated by race. The increasing significance of class in the post civil rights era makes such a term less useful. More significantly, black-lash is not unique to the Crack Era. The new work of Michael Javen Fortner clearly suggests that such sentiment existed in the 1970s as Harlemites fought vociferously against the increasing presence of heroin and crime in their neighborhoods. This suggests that black-lash existed less as a reactionary impulse, and more as an enduring, but understudied class fissure within the black community. With that said, let’s take a closer look at the roots of black-lash in the late 1960s and early 1970s to better assess the utility of the term “black-lash” as an explanatory tool. Continue reading →
Editor’s Note: Guest blogger and medical anthropologist Kim Sue returned from a recent conference entitled “From Punishment to Wellness: A Public Health Approach to Women and the War on Drugs” with some questions about the coherence of the public health paradigm.
To celebrate the release of a joint report published by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) entitled a Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy, WORTH (Women on The Rise Telling Herstory) organized a conference focusing on women and the War on Drugs. The conference brought together formerly incarcerated women, direct service providers, researchers, policy analysts, and advocates and activists to discuss how to move from a criminalization model of drug use to a public health model. “The war on drugs is more than a failure,” the organizers announced. “It has swollen the prison system, left millions of people with criminal records and damaged communities.” The one-day event was aimed at exploring “practical examples of public health alternatives,” through discussions around four main themes: prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and safety.
Thinking through public health at the New York Academy of Medicine.
What was interesting to me during the panel sessions and the break-out groups was the relative absence of public health professionals and clinicians in these discussions (one notable exception was Professor Lynn Roberts of Hunter College’s Department of Community Health). While “public health” was one of the buzzwords of the day, it seemed to stand in for other things that the conference attendees were actually more interested in talking about: structural violence, poverty, racism, patriarchy—often referred to as the “structural determinants of health.” One possibility is that “public health” was being used rhetorically as a means to talk publicly and politically about race, class, gender and various axes of social inequality under “public health’s” cloak of respectability.
There was some discussion of specific legislation and public-health oriented programming by several of the speakers—for example, Good Samaritan Acts, needle exchange programs, the decriminalization of sex work, and bills against the criminalization of HIV status—but the conference neglected how the massive apparatus of the War on Drugs endeavor will be “public health-ified” on a large scale. What will be the unintended consequences of doing so?
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New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempted ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces suffered a defeat in court a few weeks ago. But criticism of the industry that has been termed “Big Sugar” or “Big Food” shows no signs of abating. Those critical names are spinoffs from a down-market brand we all remember: Big Tobacco. Public health advocates from the populist food writer Michael Pollan to the lauded obesity researcher Kelly Brownell draw a direct comparison between the tactics of today’s convenience-food conglomerates and the tobacco industry of the twentieth century. Michael Moss’s recent bestseller Salt, Sugar, Fat reads like a journalistic sequel to historian Allan Brandt’s Cigarette Century.
Image via gmolabeling.org
Moss’s book begins with a series of comparisons between cigarette manufacturers and Big Food companies like Kraft and General Mills (both, he notes, now owned by Philip Morris). Moss draws from a series of executive testimonials and previously secret industry documents that detail the familiar tactics the companies used: scientific breakthroughs that exploit our basic biological impulses for consumption, collusion with government regulators, marketing targeted at children—all of which, he concludes, resulted in a growing chronic disease burden. With this common history established, the analogy seems straightforward: cigarette manufacturers are to cancer as food companies are to obesity-related illnesses. But it has a subtext that should interest alcohol and drugs historians as well as regulators: the suggestion that sugary substances aren’t just physiologically harmful—they’re addictive.
Critics like Moss are already alleging that the “Food Giants Hooked Us.” While I’m not sure I buy the argument, I can see how the threat of “addictive potential” might be politically useful for activists seeking to establish new regulations to curb the consumption of processed food and drinks.
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Editor’s Note: Kathleen Frydl’s new book, The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, is just out from Cambridge University Press. Points welcomes her timely and enlightening interview.
1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
I tell the story of how and why the US government became “addicted” to the modern drug war, choosing prohibition and punishment over treatment and regulation. I argue that the logic behind the particular shape and targets of the drug war (including that which was not targeted) had less to do with crime or addiction, and more to do with the management of state power.
2. What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
To be honest, probably not that much. At several points, I rely on that scholarship, but I can’t say that I actually contribute to it. For readers of this blog, it might be interesting — maybe even troubling, but hopefully stimulating — to hear the story of the drug war narrated through a different voice. I hope it is viewed as a complement to the literature.
That said, there are some parts of the book that may be of interest. In chapter 5, I argue that methadone clinics lost support for a variety of reasons. Proponents of punishment, recovery movements, and various groups on the left imposed standard medical — as opposed to public health — criteria on maintenance: built around “a crisis followed by a cure” paradigm. This is somewhat different from the goals of harm reduction. Under this more demanding paradigm, the fact that every recovery victory could be celebrated compensated believers for so much failure. In the public health lens, on the other hand, successful maintenance meant only less to be dismayed about. The outcomes were not so heroic and the narrative not so redemptive. Whether it was the Black Panthers or traditional recovery movements, certain advocates criticized maintenance precisely because it staved off the “crisis” which they felt was needed in order to proceed to the “cure,” whether that cure was sobriety or revolution in the inner city.
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Editor’s note: This post was written by Kate Silbert and Matthew Woodbury, Ph.D. candidates in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. They were part of a graduate student team who researched and wrote the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home to become a National Historic Landmark, a process outlined in previous posts. Here, they describe the recent ceremony to celebrate the designation.–Michelle McClellan
Mother’s Day is an important day for Alcoholics Anonymous. It was on this day back in 1935 that Robert H. “Dr. Bob” Smith and Bill Wilson first met. On this most recent Mother’s Day, seventy-eight years after the encounter that sparked a worldwide movement for sobriety, AA supporters gathered at 855 Ardmore Avenue in Akron, Ohio, to celebrate another milestone: the designation of Dr. Bob’s Home as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). As the authors of the NHL nomination, we were also celebrating. The recognition of Dr. Bob’s Home as an NHL marked the successful conclusion of an eighteen-month collaboration between Professor Michelle McClellan’s graduate seminar in public history and the stewards of Dr. Bob’s home, now a museum.
Since our first trip to Akron in the fall of 2011, the project had come full circle. That initial whirlwind visit set the pace for an intense period of consultation, research, and writing back in Ann Arbor. Last May, our group journeyed to Washington, D.C. to present the completed nomination to the National Park Service’s (NPS) Landmarks Committee. Five months later, in October of 2012, the Secretary of the Interior formally designated both Dr. Bob’s Home and Stepping Stones, the long-time residence of Bill and Lois Wilson in Bedford, New York, as NHLs. Continue reading →
In most cases, people gain expertise through direct experience. This is not true when it comes to addiction, where legitimate expertise is derived from a lack of direct experience. There are many reasons for this, including cultural investment in educational prestige, faith in systems of authority, resentment of those who take their pleasure in what Derrida calls “an experience without truth,” and a distrust of addicts, who are “by class the most lying, scheming, dishonest group of patients.”
That quote about lying drug addicts is from this new report, “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice,” which was released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
So when it comes to talking about addiction with any sort of legitimate authority, we generally turn to those with letters after their name rather than those with addiction in their background. The field of expertise has changed over time, from moral to legal to medical but, with very few exceptions, addicts have not been included in the cohort of experts.
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Lately I have been investigating what I call a genealogy of disclosure, asking how the tightly controlled personal narrative of Marty Mann, which she offered in service of a public health mission as she launched the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, morphed into our own cultural moment, wherein “Intervention” is a reality television show and the successive admissions of young celebrities to rehabilitation for addiction is considered newsworthy. Of course, a generation ago, First Lady Betty Ford served an important role bringing public awareness to women’s addictions, including alcoholism. Yet even though she stands as perhaps the most famous female alcoholic of the twentieth century, Ford was not the first or even the only one to step forward. Professional women, including physicians, who were alcoholic had worked to shape policy and treatment, while alcoholic actresses testified before Congress beginning in 1969 to support the bill that established the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This activism has been dubbed the “women’s alcoholism movement” and it led to the official identification of women as a “special population” of alcoholics in the context of new federal funding for research and treatment. 
The March into the 1977 National Women’s Conference (l to r): Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan (courtesy Jewish Women’s Archive).
An especially fascinating figure who played an important role during this period was Susan B. Anthony II.
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