Why do Black people sell drugs?

OK, so you all know that most rap music is poisoning the minds of today’s youth and rappers should be more conscious of their deep influence on society and culture, correct? Cool. Moving on…

I’m going to start to do posts addressing questions regarding Black people that many may have long wondered. Question one is the title of this post and I will attempt to address it how I view it. Just my thoughts, man

The international illicit drug trade is a multibillion dollar enterprise that draws its personnel from all walks of life, all racial and cultural backgrounds, and all age groups. In the early 1970s, then United States President Richard Nixon announced his administration’s new war. This war was not to be waged against poverty or small, Asian, communist nations, but against drugs. The flower power counterculture of the 1960s left America in a social state that brought depressants such as alcohol and marijuana from the slums to the suburbs as well as more adventurous and detrimental drugs such as the hallucinogens LSD and PCP. The 1969 Woodstock Festival in upstate New York seemed to epitomize what a generation of federal lawmakers and conservative parents feared: sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. With the free-wheeling substance abuse of the 1960s behind them, an influx of Vietnam veterans and their various new addictions constantly re-entering America, and the introduction of cocaine to the nation’s high society ahead of them, the U.S. Federal Government instituted sweeping reforms in domestic policy to curb the trafficking, sale, and abuse of illegal drugs in America. New York’s infamous drugs laws passed under former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller may serve as a prime example of the mid to late-20th Century Republican Party’s genesis of policies meant to be “tough on drugs”. Frequently, this has also been interpreted as being “tough on Blacks” since Blacks began being arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated in as compared to Whites. alarmingly disproportionate numbers(more in expanded post)

The 1960s was also the heyday of the American Civil Rights Movement that brought to prominence such internationally recognized figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Huey P. Newton. Each of these figures met violent ends as they were murdered in Memphis, Harlem, and Oakland, respectively. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) hand in these deaths has always been a topic of debate due to the established existence of their Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that sought to systematically disrupt and disband each of the organizations in which these figures operated. One of the chief criticisms levied at the SCLC, NAACP, and other more mainstream Black civil rights organizations in general and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement specifically was that their gains were more tangible to the Black middle-class of America than to the poor majority of Black Americans. Problems with just political representation, public education, and the paucity of quality employment coupled with the increased circulation of diverse drugs in America’s urban areas pushed many young Blacks into the drug trade. It is a business that anyone at any age can enter, no licensing or official documentation is required, and enormous financial benefits can be reaped in a comparatively short amount of time. When shone in the light of a labor relative to capital relationship, in a society where the average inner-city minority in the workforce was making only a few hundred dollars a week at their 9 a.m.-5 p.m. job, who would not want to make hundreds or even thousands of dollars a day selling drugs?

Since White flight and the creation of the predominantly Black, inner-city “ghettoes” of America, the real-life situations presented to young Blacks have been anything but positively comparable to their more socio-economically blessed, predominantly White counterparts. Basic things such as a “good” education, health care coverage, and adequate housing are taken for granted by many of America’s more privileged racial and economic groups. These things are conspicuously absent in most inner-city areas of the country today and their existence or absence relies largely on the abundance or paucity of a community and family’s funds. The importance of financial capital in attaining these things leads to people in inner-city areas seeking financial capital through any means necessary. For these individuals, the most immediate and lucrative medium through which they can amass financial capital is through the drug trade.

The drug trade is the only multibillion dollar business largely conducted in poor, inner-city American neighborhoods. Think about it. Entering this particular vocation requires no daily commute, no documents validating an individual for work—including a college degree or high school diploma—and no prior experience. These first two necessities may be interpreted in a business frame of thinking as a lack of venture capital that is necessary to enter a business enterprise since both require some sort monetary input. Young, Blacks in poor, inner-city areas possess some of the most intense and innate entrepreneurial instinct to be found anywhere in the general population as individuals such as Dame Dash, Master P, and others with their (largely successful) myriad companies selling everything from music to liquor to car rims can attest to. Becoming a doctor, lawyer, or other highly esteemed professional requires an immense amount of financial and personal commitment. In the example of a doctor, four years of college averaging $25,000 a year in addition to three years of medical school averaging $45,000 a year is a costly and timely sacrifice. Granted, this assumes the highly unlikely prospect that an individual pays for their higher education in its entirety. Nevertheless, this serves to illustrate the point at hand when compared to the fact that selling drugs in inner-city America does not require any money to begin with at all; it is a direct application of the most basic of business practices: supply and demand, product to market, and cultivated physical resources exchanged for financial capital to consumers.

The allure of drug dealing is one too tempting for many racial minorities in inner-city America to turn away from. This sad fact of the matter stems from the aforementioned incentives of immediate monetary gain in addition to the lack of quality health care, education, and other things so common in more affluent neighborhoods. Following this line of thinking, the distribution of drugs is seen as the most lucrative and abrupt means through which to achieve their financial ends. No where else is this as simple as in inner-city America. Whereas more affluent communities are ripe with professionals in medicine, law, politics, business, and a variety of other fields, poor, inner-city areas possess fewer prestigious professionals or even people gainfully employed and not living paycheck to paycheck. Role models in suburban communities abound as young people are engineered for success, expected and continuously prepared to attend college since birth, and taught to strive for achievements, goals, and wealth above and beyond what their parents attained. On the other hand, inner-city minority youth are not raised to flourish and improve nor do they have many positive role models to strive to emulate; they are only raised to survive.

As was mentioned previously, harsh punitive measures are taken towards drug offenders in certain instances of the law and its application. The common destination of drug dealers throughout the nation is one that has experienced a nearly exponential increase during the past 35 years or so: this destination is, of course, America’s jails, prisons, and penitentiaries. In the theories of the architects of America’s penal system, it was meant to act as punishment to civilians who broke the law of the land in addition to a deterrent against future crimes and criminals. Some would argue that this original goal was changed at some point around the late 1960s or early 1970s and the chief goal of the American penal system was then to incarcerate as many Blacks, specifically Black males, as possible as a means of social control post-Jim Crow. I would argue that the penal system has failed miserably at its original goal and should be, at the very least, radically reformed if not abolished. The reasons behind this belief most prominently include the fact that although “cruel and unusual” punishment is illegal in America, the American penal system can adequately be described as cruel although it is sadly not unusual. Additionally, the rehabilitation that criminals are supposed to undergo while incarcerated never occurs. Instead, inmates are forced even deeper into their “criminal mindset” through frequent and explicit exposure to violence; squalid living conditions and subhuman treatment; and little or no access to educational, psychological, and vocational rehabilitative programs.

There are so many forces pushing young Blacks in inner-city America to sell drugs that few can blame them for using their means to attain what American society has deemed and lauded as so important: money. Yes, selling drugs is illegal according to American law. Yes, selling drugs is regarded as immoral according to American society. Yes, selling drugs is only a short-term path to success according to the American dream. Nevertheless, these reflective viewpoints are not what inner-city Blacks immediately take into consideration when choosing to enter the illicit drug trade. Their immediate concerns are rising out of their current social and economic situation in the hopes of living a “Scarfacesque” lifestyle replete with money, a mansion, and all the social power, political influence, and economic security that they have never enjoyed. Black people sell drugs to make the money to obtain physical necessities and luxuries for themselves and their families that they do not have and no legislator, police officer, or warden is going to stop them.


6 responses to “Why do Black people sell drugs?

  1. You write: ‘it is a business that anyone at any age can enter…and enormous financial benefits can be reaped in a comparatively short amount of time….who would not want to make hundreds or even thousands of dollars a day selling drugs?”

    Except that the vast majority of people selling drugs do not make even enough to cobble together the equivalent of a minimum-wage salary. The reason the drug game is lucrative is that it is essentially a pyramid scheme. The real money comes in being a large-scale dealer who runs street-corner pushers, paying them penurious wages, with the understanding that they have no recourse if they are cheated/robbed, and reaping the benefits. Those employees accept those wages because of an erroneous belief that they can somehow beat the system–that they can charge enough for their product that they will turn a significant profit. The large-scale dealer, like all other capitalists, profits from the laber of his or her employees.

    The drug trade is not somehow more egalitarian than other capitalist enterprises in its valuation of labor. There are barriers to entering the drug trade at a more profitable level as well–you need capital to purchase stock, so it is not egalitarian in this sense either. Check out Dubner’s Freakonomics for an analysis based on records of the drug trade. Dubner used this analysis to answer the question, “why do crack dealers live at home with their mothers?” The answer–they don’t make enough money to support themselves.

    People get involved in the drug trade for the same reasons they get involved in capitalistic enterprises– except that they fail to see that the drug trade rewards even fewer opportunities for wealth than capitalism, because the risks are higher and more fatal.

  2. On your first point (drug dealers not making a lot of money), you’re correct to an extent. I used the term “comparatively” for a reason, however. The smallest drug dealer working 40 hours a week, for example, will most likely make more than someone working 40 hours per week for minimum wage. There are “good” days and there are “bad” days but more often than not days are “good” since drug abusers constantly need their product. Demand is always high. Supply is what lacks constantly due to lower-level dealers needing to receive their product from superiors and not controlling its production themselves.

    In a sense, the drug trade IS more egalitarian than many other capitalist enterprises in its valuation of labor. The main respect that this is true is in regards to commission. Most capitalist enterprises do not offer commission to their employees; only an hourly wage or yearly salary. No matter one’s productivity, rigor in their work, or ingenuity on the job they are paid the same in that position. This is not true for drug dealers. The amount of effort and imagination that a drug dealer puts into their vocation can have significant ramifications as to how much money they bring in. The more and faster they sell, the more and faster they’re supplied. Therefore, the amount of time one puts into drug dealing is very important. This is the reason many drug dealers drop out of school: they’d like to spend more time selling drugs because no money is made sitting behind a desk in school. Money is in the streets.

    On the crack dealers living at home thing, there are many things I could bring up for reasons this exist that have little to do with a crack dealer not having enough money. The biggest thing, however, is the fact that they would need certain basics like a photo ID, proof of employment (or income), a bank/checking account (who pays rent or mortgage in cash?), etc. to obtain a residence legally. Most don’t have these things so living with mom is cool and free. Let’s not forget the fact that many of them are young also so it’s not like they’re 45 and living with their mother. Most are within an age group (under 25, let’s say) where it isn’t a remarkable thing to still live with one’s parent(s). Many of us will post-college, at least for a while.

  3. I was going to bring up the Freakanomics book, but Paloma has already done a masterful job of pointing this out. Mr. Slugger, once again I’m going to have to say that I think you are asserting a lot of things that have no factual basis other than anecdotal observation. I thought your historical grasp of the problem was pretty on point, but I thought you missed a great opportunity to point out how the US government, through differential application of criminal justice, has allowed various manifestations of the “drug trade” to provide a base of otherwise unavailable capital to other ethnic minorities– chiefly Italian and Irish alcohol bootleggers in the early 20th century and Russian and Albanian mafia folks now. For all of our collective outrage about drug crime, it seems a little unfair that we pretend as if John F. Kennedy’s family fortune did not come from the inheritance of wealth that was gained from an illict drug trade in alcohol. But back to our major concern…why black people sell drugs….

    John Kenneth Gailbraith writes about conventional wisdom very negatively. He says that conventional wisdom is usually far from wisdom and only conventional because it’s wrong and based on hearsay most of the time. I think as a black intellectual, perhaps your time would be best spent exposing the illusions of grandeur we see in hip-hop’s glorification of the drug trade. A real analysis of current inner city ghetto conditions and American drug use would expose two major trends– drug use is down, and drug dealing and drug supply are up. A basic economic analysis shows that this is a problem for drug dealers. The market is so oversaturated with drugs and drug dealers (I think partially motivated by the conventional wisdom that they can make more money than they could have working or going to school) that it’s EXTREMELY difficult for people to make money off of drugs anymore. Next time you go to Trenton or visit the prison in Boston, ask to speak to someone who did federal time for drug dealing beginning in the late 1980s or early 1990s and they will tell you the same thing. The amount of money these people are making now are crumbs compared to what Alpo and Rich Porter, Nikky Barnes, and that era’s drug titans were making. Even mid-level drug dealers are making less than they were in those days. Add to this the documented high fatality, arrest rate, and other occupational hazards of drug dealing, it just stops being a logically defensible enterprise. It only becomes logical if, as the Freakanomics book brilliantly argues, the individual engaging in it thinks he can beat the odds. Now this poses a huge problem for black people. If we can have a society where hundreds of thousands of black men can grow up thinking they can beat the statistically staggering odds against them to play professional sports, make money as an entertainer, or become an economically stable drug dealer– then how come we can’t convince them to put that same kind of otherworldly faith in education or “legitimate” entrepreneurship? I think that is the question at the heart of this whole problem and I think once people of all races can understand that question and the reality it speaks to, we can start talking about the pyschological damage of deteriorating schools or racist discourse in the media or so on and so on.

    Another, perhaps politically incorrect problem that I think needs to be addressed is the problem of fatherhood. A lot of rappers defend their choice to sell drugs on the logic that their children need money to eat immediately. Perhaps a legitimate excuse…but even if we were to grant that, perhaps part of our inquiry on this subject could be about personal responsibility in regards not to fatherhood and provision, but taking it a step further to ask for the exercise of responsibility in not getting people pregnant before one has a stable income or upwardly mobile career prospects?

    Side note: I know I give you guys a hard time, but I really enjoy this blog and the work you are doing, so keep it up.

  4. Focusing on the reason Blacks sell drugs was the purpose of my post, not highlighting other (formerly) ethnic minorities or broadening the scope of the question or answer.

    I’m a Black intellectual? That’s wassup. At only 20 this is some accomplishment (take THAT Henry Louis Gates! Believe that drug use is down if you want, but only in certain areas do I buy it. Judging from the Harvard undergraduate body, it’s not down at all. College is actually a place where more people get into new substances because of its accessibility, a friend that does “it”, social pressure in party/chill environments to experiment, etc. U.S. society is different, yes, but even if drug use is decreasing it’s still pretty bad and drug dealers are still making money. The titans? They’re making more than Alpo, Rich Porter, or whoever could have dreamed of circa ’87. Believe that.

    An enterprise being logically defensible is different than it being logically understandable. I regard Blacks selling drugs as the latter and not the former.

    Faith isn’t just begotten. It’s built over time. Focusing on the drug trade (and not professional sports or entertainment as you pointed out), Black kids see lots of their peers selling drugs and then having *large* stacks of money and nicer, newer possessions. They see steps to take and they are able to do so. They have faith in the trade (in plain English, if they stand outside their home with drugs they will eventually see people looking to purchase those drugs…if they sell these drugs to those individuals they will turn a profit). This is an oversimplification and disregards variables such as competition from other dealers, the police presence, the location one is in, etc. but you get the picture. Also, the drug trade has a ton of people ready and willing to intergrate them into the profession. This is not the case with becoming a doctor or lawyer. Recruitment for REAL (i.e. not volunteer work or through a community outreach organization/office) Masschusetts General Hospital work isn’t happening in Mission Hill (a part of Roxbury) or Franklin Hill (a part of Dorchester). I bet it’s happening in Beacon Hill, though (where the hosptial is technically located, mind you). Getting to your point, how can you really expect inner-city Black kids to have faith in the education they receive? There are so many problems with it from a lack of essential physical resources (i.e. BOOKS!), to poor training for teachers in these settings, to even the non-promotion of debate and critical thought through discussion. I never had a classroom discussion in all my 18 years of life before coming to Harvard. These schools are engineering kids to stay out of jail and the maternity ward more than to go to college or obtain mainstream jobs. How can you have faith in a place that is unsafe, unclean, and unattentive to your personal, educational, and futuristic needs? Nearly two decades worth of inner-city public school experience tells me that success isn’t to be found there. Everyone that I know that got to go to four-year schools had to supplement their education through extra programs (subsidized SAT Prep), local community-college courses (subsidized as well), and myriad fee waivers (obviously subsidized). College admission (the focus of pre-college education, correct?) and career success are games where you have to pay to play (or at least have the government pay…ha Uncle Sam!) in so many ways. Most Blacks can’t afford to pay so they don’t play.

    Selling drugs for one’s kid(s) is often the rapper excuse, yes. It’s often the average drug dealer on the street’s excuse? Not so much. Also, most rappers (that purport to have done so) *sold* drugs before they had record deals. The initial focus of doing it was almost always to get money for one’s self. Planned pregnancies ARE important but expecting them is a Western idea, largely. Most of the world doesn’t plan them but encourages as many kids as possible (by married couples). I’m not sure where I stand on this. I’m all for tons of kids but I don’t want kids brought up in poverty. Hmmm…

  5. Your look at the drug business as a “business enterprise” is developed in a vacuum and fails to account for things anyone analyzing a business would consider, namely – a basic cost-benefit analysis.


  6. The drug business IS a business enterprise complete with offices (crack [or whatever else] houses), labor and management (dealers and suppliers), product (duh), marketing schemes (deals on drugs, half-price due to decreased potency), etc. There are just no documents or government oversight (…) of the business.

    There IS a cost-benefit analysis that drug dealers take into account. However, they always feel that they will reap more of the benefits than they most likely will while staying away from more of the costs than they most likely will. The assessment is always made but the reality in it is just off.

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