Pubdate: Thu, 19 Mar 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

The Epidemic Is Not Over -- It Just Mutated Into an Economic Crisis


The weather is weird in Oakland on a recent Saturday, as a biting 
wind cuts through the warm glow of a late February sun. Soon, a brief 
but furious rain pounds the skylights on the roof of Laney College's 
black student union, making it hard for the 40 or so people seated in 
folding chairs to hear the voice of the slight man standing at the 
podium. The man is America's most successful drug dealer.

Short and thin, bald with a clipped beard, and wearing gray sweats 
and a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of his own face, Rick Ross 
could be mistaken for a retired tennis instructor. In another life, 
he might have been. Instead, after dreams of a tennis college 
scholarship were scuttled - because as a high school senior in Los 
Angeles he was unable to read - Ross oversaw the sale of nearly $1 
billion worth of crack cocaine throughout the 1980s.

He was sentenced to life in prison in the 1990s, after his 
CIA-connected raw cocaine supplier - the man without whom Ross' 
success would not be possible - set him up for a bust. Ross was 28 
when he learned to read while behind bars; he later helped put 
together the appeal that freed him in 2009 at age 50.

Ross is here for a few hours before jetting off to Atlanta, the next 
leg on a nationwide tour to promote his self-published Untold 
Autobiography ("No. 10,000 on Amazon," he says, to approving nods) 
and a documentary about his life which will air the following evening 
on Al Jazeera ("A cable channel," he explains).

Riches, ruin, and redemption. It would be a compelling tale anywhere. 
But here, Ross' appeal goes deeper. Every member of the rapt audience 
has a personal connection to him: By flooding Los Angeles, Oakland, 
Cincinnati, and other cities across the country with cheap crack, he 
played a role in the deterioration of his admirers' families, 
neighborhoods, and lives.

In between offering advice on entrepreneurship and answering 
questions about his prison stint, Ross is asked about the crack 
epidemic. Is he blamed, is he hated for his role in what serious 
people who intend no hyperbole refer to as a "genocide"? Ross has an 
easy and ready answer: He's been forgiven, and black America bears 
him no ill will.

He may be right. Ross finishes his half-hour talk to warm applause. 
As he sticks around to pose for selfies and sign copies of his book, 
it's as if the crack era is over, like slavery or Jim Crow - just an 
ugly memory made tolerable by the relief that society survived and 
learned its lessons.

Later, Ross hangs out to talk with a reporter who, along with Ross' 
manager and another journalist, are the only white people in the 
room. He's asked if black America really has rebounded from the dark 
days of the 1980s and '90s. This is the only time Ross turns hard.

"No," he says, his soft, engaging eyes turning serious, a little 
cold. "It's worse now than it ever was."

America is slowly coming to terms with "trauma" and what to do about 
it. A decade-plus of armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and a 
serious discussion of "rape culture" are helping to force the issue. 
It is well understood that survivors of war and sexual assault may 
find themselves irritable, worn out, unable to study, unable to 
sleep, unable to focus - unable to function.

Post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself in depression, 
listlessness, and, at times, violent outbursts. Those also happen to 
be many of the negative behaviors associated with black ghettos. 
Maybe this could explain the troubling trends afoot in black America.

By almost every metric, the majority of black people are being left 
behind in the economic recovery. The dropout rate for black students 
in California is nearly 20 percent, almost triple the rate for white 
students. Adults may have it even worse: Unemployment for black 
Californians has doubled since 2000, according to the leftist 
Economic Policy Institute, from 7.4 percent in 2000 to 14 percent 
today. In the Bay Area, it is worse: unemployment for black people is 
19 percent - triple the rate for other races.

Trauma may help to explain this stark and widening opportunity gap. 
In 2015, there are now second and third generations of people dealing 
with the stress of the crack epidemic.

La'Cole Martin never touched the drug, but she considers herself a 
crack victim. "My whole life has been impacted by crack cocaine," she 
says. "Even if you didn't do it, you can't escape it."

Martin lives in the same West Oakland neighborhood in which she grew 
up, in a house not far from the home where her mother raised her and 
still lives today. Her father and aunt, both middle class when Martin 
was born in 1982, and her fiance's father, a Modesto schoolteacher, 
all became addicted to the crack that suddenly appeared in their neighborhoods.

All of them lost their jobs. Martin's aunt is still addicted. Her 
father - locked up in prison, as one in six of all American black men 
will be at some point in their lives - missed out on both of Martin's 
graduation walks.

As an academic, Martin has sought to define and quantify this 
too-common story: the "legacy of trauma" caused by crack. In her 
master's thesis, which she is working to expand to a book, Martin 
presents a term for the common experience of her addicted, 
incarcerated, or dead friends and family members: "post traumatic 
crack syndrome."

This trauma has gone untreated, and has put black America on more 
unstable socioeconomic footing in the 21st century than it was before 
the Civil Rights era, Martin says. In other words, black folk are 
worse off economically in the age of Obama and iPhones than in the 
days of riot police and firehoses.

That sounds farfetched, but Martin offers proof. On top of rising 
joblessness, she says, blacks own less property. For example, on the 
commercial stretch near her home at Market Street and West Grand 
Avenue, "there's not a single black-owned business," Martin says. 
Around her, homes owned by black families are now rentals, 
foreclosed, or abandoned. What crack-fueled incarceration and drug 
addiction started, the foreclosure crisis finished off.

That's Ross' point. The wealth that a generation of working-class 
black Americans built is now gone. "At least in the crack era," he 
says, "we owned things."

It's the crack era's continuing legacy: an enormous step backward 
that, unlike sick veterans or rape victims, America still struggles 
to acknowledge.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom