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.