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Points Interview: David Farber

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Professor David Farber, the author of CRACK: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Farber is the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor at University of Kansas, and is a historian of modern America. His previous books include Everybody Ought to Be Rich: The Life and Times of John J. Raskob, Capitalist; Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam and Chicago ’68.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I’ve written a history of the crack cocaine years. In the 1980s and 1990s, crack crews took over swathes of poor, disproportionately Black urban neighborhoods. They set up 24/7 open-air drug markets. In those communities, suffering from the ravages of de-industrialization and the pain of Reagan-era disinvestment, crack use became epidemic.

Across the United States, a moral panic took root. White, middle-class Americans feared that crack was coming for them, too. That moral panic contributed to draconian drug laws that accelerated the rise of mass incarceration in the United States.

Meanwhile, crack kingpins got rich (at least for a while), Gangsta Rap artists celebrated their exploits, and mainstream American society found one more reason to harden its heart against its poorest and most alienated members. The Crack Years changed America.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I’ve tried to explain how the crack cocaine business, at its height in the 1980s and 1990s, worked. Histories of illegal drug dealing, especially as business history case studies in the United States, are still relatively rare. I am particularly interested in explaining how the prevailing late twentieth century neoliberal suppositions of the American polity and culture made their way into the operating ethos of crack crews. Likewise, I track the ways in which a “deviant” form of globalization enabled the rise of the crack trade in inner-city communities. Finally, I link the crack trade to the “alternative” capitalization of a range of businesses and legitimate enterprises within poor, Black communities. Lastly, I think drug historians will be interested in how I portray the masculine stylings of street corner crack dealers and the effects that gender performance had on music and culture in the United States. Drug cultures are and have always been a core aspect of American culture.

My account of crack in the United States incorporates social, political, cultural, and business history methodologies. My colleagues will get a kick, I think, out of the kinds of sources I used to weave my tale. Finally, I think CRACK serves as a template for using drug history to figure the broader sweep of American history in a particular era. I hope instructors will use CRACK in their courses to explain how the “Reagan era” and the rise of a neoliberal political economy filtered through American society, with at least some poor and left-behind Americans playing the bad hand they had been dealt.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

David Farber

I have written a number of books and this one presented an unusual set of challenges. First, I was aware that I had a powerful story to tell but one that could easily become a kind of exploitative “urban-poverty-gangster-porn.” That ethical risk was multiplied by the African-American focus of the book. At the same time, I did not want to wish away or underplay the violence and ugliness of the scene I was portraying. So, writing a balanced account, with historical empathy for my actors but also with critical judgement, was tricky. One of the ways I tried to find that balance was deploying a variant of a Greek chorus; in this case that meant turning to the organic intellectuals of the inner-city: Hip Hop artists. Their voices provided powerful insights to the lived experience of this story’s historical actors. Of course, talking to people who had roles in the Crack trade and figuring out how to get their stories into the book was also a major challenge, in part because they were not always forthcoming. To a person, they feared that talking to me—even thirty years after the fact—could get them into serious trouble with their former colleagues. That undertaking left me with some good stories.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I am a big fan of Elaine Carey’s work on women in the illegal drug industry and I wanted to incorporate women’s experiences in the crack trade. But I really only replicated conventional accounts, with women as either victims or as minor players. Having now done several radio and podcast interviews on the book, I have gotten feedback from people who lived through the Crack era who tell me that women played a bigger role in sales and distribution than I have indicated. We need to incorporate the role of women and gender, more broadly, into the history of crack—and the drug industry more broadly.

In addition, and I think in a related vein, my sources overwhelmingly tell the story of the crack trade through accounts of people who got caught and incarcerated. People who were not caught leave few records and have a powerful disincentive to be interviewed. Somehow, scholars need to figure out how to tell the story of those who were not brought down by law. Their successful careers would undoubtedly explain much more about one of the most important aspect of the drug trade more generally—how the capital raised by drug dealing finds its way into legit businesses and investments. In terms of crack, so much money was made and we have so little accounting of where all that money went and how it affected the life courses of the people—and communities? –who benefited from the money even as they struggled with crack’s effects.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

Karry Shale, a London-based actor, narrated the audiobook version of Crack. I think he did an excellent job and so will not insist that Tracy Lauren Marrow (Ice T) give it a go. Perfect listening, by the way, when driving cross-country (and the audiobook is very reasonably priced).


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