Watching corporate media lately has felt like a flashback to the 1980s. Crack cocaine was once again on center stage as the story of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s drug use became the daily focus of a TMZ-like obsession.
While Ford’s story ballooned into a national joke—complete with two straight weeks of material for Saturday Night Live (11/16/13, 11/23/13), including a skit with a black crack dealer—it’s important to note what pushed this episode into the spotlight in a culture desensitized to political scandals: A white Canadian mayor smoked crack. And our collective jaws were expected to hit the floor when we saw the “evidence”: video of Ford smoking with a group of black men in a Toronto housing project.
As Nicholas Barber asks in the Huffington Post (11/21/13): “If the Ford video showed him snorting powder cocaine in the back of a fancy restaurant with white guys in nice suits (which, incidentally, Ford is now also alleged to have done), would people still think that it was as big a deal?” Barber sharply pointed out the case of another Canadian politician who admitted snorting cocaine in office and won re-election nonetheless. There is, of course, ample evidence that users of powder cocaine (seen as a “white” drug) get different treatment—not only by the law, but by the media as well.
That crack is seen largely as a “black” drug begs for deeper analysis on what the media circus around Ford represents. Jacobin (11/6/13) delved into the political and cultural implications of a white politician using a drug predominantly associated with the “black underclass,” and also took Gawker, which broke the story (5/16/13), to task for their constant fixation on the drug itself: “Why is smoking crack ridiculous in a way that snorting cocaine wouldn’t be?” Jacobin’s Freddie deBoer asked, criticizing Gawker for its “routine appeal to the base instincts of readers who will undoubtedly read race and class into Ford’s drug of choice.”
And this is where the media play coy. While race is coded into the language of drugs, there is rarely any acknowledgement or reflection about the racially disproportionate incarceration policies and sentencing guidelines that made the war on drugs, buoyed by past media coverage, so disastrous for communities of color. Instead, you get a circus. Whether you read into this a painful insensitivity or the actions of a media too heavily invested in a shame-oriented view of drugs, you can’t help but sense that the discussion isn’t a completely honest one.
There is also the question of white privilege. While the butt of jokes, Ford (as of this writing) was neither out of a job nor in jail. Would a person of color, as The Root (11/22/13) pondered, be “afforded the same latitude if he or she were smoking crack cocaine?” Comparisons to former Washing-ton, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, who lost his job and was jailed for smoking crack, were immediate (Washington Post, 11/5/13; CBC, 11/10/13; BET, 11/13). But the media bonanza over a white crack-smoking mayor seldom lent itself to confronting questions of race or how such a sensationalized approach to Ford’s crack use today was reminiscent of media’s similar (but darker and more panicky) coverage of crack in the 1980s (Extra!, 9/92, 9/98).
As public opinion has gradually shifted toward decriminalizing drug use, mainstream commentators and media outlets have been forced to recognize voices and research that suggest drugs, and the war on drugs, shouldn’t be seen strictly through the prisms of ridicule and criminality. While you’ll still find coverage of drugs in the mainstream largely soaked in wry bemusement (Extra!, 12/12), there is a more open and sober public discussion on drugs than in the past.
However, when coverage of Ford takes the shape of a cultural punchline centered around the novelty of a white man using the wrong drug—not to be acknowledged, only subtly implied—we have taken a step back towards a middle-school lunchroom level of seriousness: Ha ha, your mayor smokes crack!
While to many the actions of Rob Ford are shameful, perhaps the bigger shame falls on a media that was instrumental in the public embrace of a failed drug war then—and a racially tinged circus today.