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.