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The idea that the poor are impoverished because of their immoral lifestyle—such as addiction to drugs and alcohol—is a basic tenet of the pathological view of poverty; this view led to the notion that there was a “culture of poverty.” One of the basic assumptions of the pathological view is that the majority of society’s most impoverished persons are unemployed and “undeserving” because of substance abuse—that addiction to drugs and alcohol undermines their ability to hold a job. The pathological view also maintains that there is a direct connection between substance abuse and crime: that addicts— whether panhandlers, beggars, inner-city blacks, or the homeless—become violent because of a need to obtain the money to support their addiction.
Alcohol has played a mixed role in American culture. In the 1700s and early 1800s, taverns served as social gathering places for diverse social classes in cities such as Philadelphia and Boston. The mixing of social classes ceased in the early nineteenth century after the rise of industrialization, but taverns continued to serve as centers of urban politics throughout the nineteenth century. Likewise, the immigrant experience in large urban centers such as Chicago and New York revolved around neighborhood taverns, where working-class men met and socialized after work. In part, the temperance movement of the late nineteenth century—that led to Prohibition—was motivated by anti-immigrant fervor; outlawing alcohol disrupted the patterns of immigrant life and targeted the immorality that the reformers believed taverns condoned.
The anti-immigrant aspect of the temperance movement is a good example of how images of substance abuse are inseparable from racial and ethnic constructs. Today, images of impoverished African Americans in inner-city ghettos flood the media; similarly, the “myth” of the largely ethnic “underclass” (the most impoverished and ostracized element of society) is associated with pathologic drug use and immorality. The debate over Eugene Richards’s photos of “the front lines of violence, drug addiction, poverty, racism, and cancer,” in Cocaine True Cocaine Blue (1994) illustrates this assumption. Filled with close-up images of shockingly brutal and self-destructive behavior, this book associated hard-core drug use with African Americans. “Why are nearly all of the people in these photographs black?” asked the New York Times. “Why is the white aspect of drug addiction so consistently invisible?” To this charge, Richards replied: “the last thing I noticed about the pregnant women smoking crack, the addicts dying after shooting up, the young girls prostituting themselves, the drug boys with automatic weapons or the mothers grieving for their dead children was their skin color.” Instead, Richards sought to force the viewer “to be horrified by . . . the waste of life” inherent in hard-core drug addiction; he argued that it was only coincidence that the gruesome images were of blacks.
According to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, American Indians have the highest rate, at 13.7 percent, of illicit drug use. Next are African Americans at 9.8 percent; 8.9 percent of mixed-race individuals; 8.5 percent of whites; 6.9 percent of Hispanics; and 3.6 percent of Asians. The 2005 National Survey report reported that more than 20 percent of white and Hispanic high school students in the United States were current marijuana users; the report listed 14 percent of students from “other” race categories, including blacks, as current users of marijuana.
At the same time, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released data showing that, in 2004, more than 50 percent of blacks in federal and state prisons admitted using illegal drugs in the month prior to their arrest. In 2006, there were 1,376,792 arrests in the United States for drug abuse. Of those arrested, nearly 64 percent were white and 35 percent were black (the report did not consider Hispanics as a separate race). At the end of 2003, of the nearly 1.3 million prison inmates in the fifty states, 250,900 were imprisoned for drug-related offenses. Over half of these inmates, 133,100, were black, 64,800 were white, and 50,100 were Hispanic. As these data show, a racial aspect to the relation of drug use and incarceration, but it is not possible to claim that one race or ethnicity has a greater predisposition.
- Callow, Alexander B. Jr., ed., American Urban History: An Interpretive Reader with Commentaries, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982);
- Office of National Drug Control Policy (http://www.ondcp.gov/);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000);
- Richards, Eugene, Cocaine True Cocaine Blue (New York: Aperture, 1994);
- Richards, Eugene, “Cocaine True Cocaine Blue,” Letter to the Editor, New York Times (March 6, 1994);
- Staples, Brent, “Coke Wars,” New York Times (February 6, 1994).
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