How the ‘Crack Baby’ Myth Criminalized Black Women and Destroyed Families

ZORA Editors
ZORA
Published in
2 min readFeb 18, 2021

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Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy, director Stanley Nelson’s latest documentary, is both a reminder and an eye-opening account of the horrors of crack and the country’s push to criminalize Black people struggling with drug addiction. Streaming on Netflix, it covers a lot of ground. Drawing from anecdotes from the Black and Brown people impacted by the “war on drugs” and archival footage from the 1980s and ’90s, the doc illustrates the ties between Reagan’s White House to Nicaragua and how a party drug for the elite was weaponized by police and the medical field to separate Black mothers from their newborns. The latter gave way to the myth of “crack babies,” a narrative that created robust fears and sensational headlines. A myth that criminalized Black women who needed help, instead of treating addiction as a health issue. A myth that destroyed families by incarcerating Black moms.

“How does a newborn benefit from being kept from their mother? How is a child better off in foster care or with their parent incarcerated? But the narrative was cemented: The judiciary process was to quell the influx of new ‘crack babies,’” writes Bonsu Thompson in his latest piece, “How the Crack Era Waged War on Drug-Addicted Mothers.”

But, as the documentary shows, the so-called epidemic of crack babies was never one.

“Possibly, the biggest myth-buster provided by Crack was that the crack baby was fictitious. There were certainly examples of babies who had been born with drugs in their system showing side effects like irritability and strained cardiovascular function. Yet the picture painted to society was premature infants twitching from cocaine rushes,” Thompson writes. “Moreover, there was a fear that these Black and Brown crack babies would grow up mentally challenged and ultimately join their mothers in the penal system.”

Thompson continues: “In the documentary, historian Elizabeth Hinton states that during the crack era, the amount of children born with cocaine in their system was less than 5%. That means that the women arrested 30 years ago for cocaine distribution and child neglect were done so unjustly, their lives marred or ruined unnecessarily… Even more disgusting, the country predatorily hunted women — minority women at their weakest and sickest point. Today, pregnant White women addicted to opioids receive empathy and addiction counselors. Thirty years ago, Black women held tight by crack cocaine got handcuffs and a reminder that there is no body that the United States hates more than a Black one.”

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