Past Event

Samuel K. Roberts - Persistent Plagues: Race, Space, and Epidemiological Thinking in Illicit Drug Use Research, 1950-1980

October 21, 2020
6:00 PM - 7:30 PM
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Event Description: 

At various points in history, journalists and pundits, politicians, cultural critics, and even some public health professionals have talked about so-called “epidemics” of drug use among Black Americans. For most of them, the term was less technically descriptive of actual measurable epidemics than evocative of common anxieties -- moral panics regarding so-called “drug epidemics” actually were plague narratives, referencing general confusion regarding what historically in the United States was called “the race question” or “the urban problem.” Postwar liberals and the nascent New Right both argued that Black and Latinx urbanites were predisposed to drug use. Of course, they did so with different political aims (one to point out the psychic costs of continuing racism, the other to imply the wrongheadedness of indulgent Civil Rights and coddling antipoverty measures).

This talk describes evidence which showed that neither of these two positions were informed by a particularly astute understanding of the drug problem or of epidemic theory. The lack of understanding is important because both sides left many other options unexplored and each played its role in the nation’s road to the War on Drugs and mass incarceration.

Event Speaker

Samuel K. Roberts, Associate Professor of History, Sociomedical Sciences and of African American and African Diaspora Studies and Leader of the Historical Study of Race, Inequality, and Health Research Cluster at Columbia University

Event Information: 

This event is free and open to the public, RSVP to receive Zoom link. Please contact [email protected] with any questions. 

This event is part of the New York History of Science Lecture Series.

Sponsoring Organizations:

  • The University Seminars at Columbia University
  • Columbia University in the City of New York
  • NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study
  • The Graduate Center, City University of New York
  • The New York Academy of Medicine
  • The New York Academy of Sciences