Updated: Aug 29
Editor’s Note: A week and a half ago, we noted that 40,000 Americans had died from COVID-19. Now that number is over 70,000. It’s a frightening time, but we’re trying to record history as it happens. Today contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore, discusses the long history of blaming alcohol and drug use–vice–on minority communities in times of crisis.
During a White House coronavirus press conference on April 10th, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged black and brown Americans to quit drugs and alcohol and embrace family values to best avoid contracting coronavirus.
Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. And call your friends and family. Check in on your mother; she wants to hear from you right now. And speaking of mothers, we need you to do this, if not for yourself, then for your abuela. Do it for your granddaddy. Do it for your Big Mama. Do it for your Pop-Pop. We need you to understand — especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.
Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS, immediately pushed back against Adams’s rhetoric, labeling it “highly offensive” to communities of color. Jamil Smith, senior writer for Rolling Stone, likewise took to social media to decry Adams’s remarks and insinuation that people of color are more susceptible to coronavirus because of moral deficiency and vice.
Adams, that fourth African American to serve as the nation’s Surgeon General, argued that he personally uses the terms “granddaddy” and “big momma” in his own family and that “targeted outreach” are necessary to combat the health inequities faced by the African-American community and only exacerbated by the pandemic.
Thus far, available statistics do indicate that black and brown Americans are contracting and dying from the virus at disproportionately higher rates. As Stacey Patton argued recently in The Washington Post, “Black people are at the mercy of everything that is flawed and dysfunctional about America’s health-care system, which has long been shaped by racism.”
Adams has, to his credit, acknowledged the history of institutional racism in American medicine and the “burden of social ills” faced by black and brown citizens. But his efforts to demonize and blame vice for the disproportionate spread of coronavirus within the African American community relegates those realities to the background, and instead foregrounds moral deficiency and drug addiction within the black community as the primary culprit. Adams’s comments also overlook the reality that black and white people roughly use drugs at the same rate, while people of color continue to be arrested and incarcerated six times more often for drug-related crimes. Much as with over policing and mass incarceration, then, the disproportionate spread of coronavirus in the black community has much less to do with actual drug use than it does with historic and institutionalized racism.
Moreover, the Surgeon General’s recent efforts to blame vice for the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on the black community draw from and contribute to a long history of government authorities blaming intoxicant use in minority communities for the spread of immorality, social conflict, and disease. Both in the U.S. and abroad, government officials have time and again pointed to the drug use and “intoxicating spaces” (e.g. cafés, bars, clubs, etc.) of ethnic and religious minorities as a serious threat to public order and health, and particularly in times of social conflict and crisis.
The history of alcohol prohibition in the modern U.S. is replete with such instances of blaming black vice for crime, crisis, and the spread of disease. As scholar Denise A. Herd argued, “prohibition and racism went hand in hand” in the American South during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Temperance supporters often and “openly campaigned for ‘white supremacy,’ black disenfranchisement and Jim Crow legislation.” The “problem of black drunkenness” thus became a central concern for white supremacists, who often propagated the idea that excessive alcohol consumption caused black men to insatiably crave and rape white women.
As Herd details, this trope of the alcohol-fueled black rapist was used widely by the conservative elites in the Democratic Party to simultaneously peel poor white voters away from the (more progressive) Populist Movement and to push various Jim Crow “disenfranchisement schemes including poll taxes, literacy requirements, and complicated election procedures.” An article published in Collier’s Weekly in 1908, and quoted by Herd, well captured this earlier example of blaming black vice for crisis and conflict in American society.
“Is it plain now, the secret of many and many a lynching and burning in the South? The primitive negro field hand, a web of strong, sudden impulses, good and bad, comes into town or settlement on Saturday afternoon and pays his fifty cents for a pint of Mr. Levy’s gin. He absorbs not only its toxic heat, but absorbs also the suggestion subtly conveyed, that it contains aphrodisiacs. He sits in the road or in the alley at the height of his debauch, looking at that obscene picture of a white woman on the label, drinking in the invitation which it carries. And then comes—opportunity. There follows the hideous episode of the rope or the stake.”
Famed muckraking journalist Will Irwin wrote these words in response to the murder of Margaret Lear in Shreveport, allegedly by a black man called Charles Coleman who had been drinking Mr. Levy’s gin to excess. Irwin blamed both Coleman’s gin consumption and Lee Levy, the Jewish manufacturer of the gin in St. Louis, for the woman’s murder. And while he seemed to disapprove of the primitive nature of lynching, Irwin clearly viewed the act in this case as one of vigilante justice compelled by an alcohol-fueled sex crime.
As historian Marni Davis detailed in Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition (2012), Irwin’s article helped convince numerous local and state government across the South to pass alcohol prohibition laws years before the federal statute, and, as Irwin put it, shut down “every low Negro dive in the South” to prevent such violent crimes and acts of retribution from occurring.
During the influenza pandemic a decade later in 1918, black intoxication in the eyes of white supremacists became a threat to not only public order but also to public health, and in both southern and northern states. In Chicago, where nearly one million African Americans already had moved during the first waves of the Great Northward Migration in search of jobs, stories abounded in popular media about the dual threat posed by intoxicated black bodies in the city’s streets. An article from November 1918 in the Chicago Daily Tribune, for example, warned white Chicagoans that black migrants “are compelled to live crowded in dark and insanitary rooms” and “are surrounded by constant temptations in the way of wide open saloons and other worse resorts.” The moral deficiencies, alcoholism, and poor habits of hygiene among migrant blacks, the article concluded, threatened white Chicago with both racial integration and contagion. Thus, even though infection rates among African Americans during the 1918/9 pandemic were relatively low, and even though numerous states, such as Virginia, loosened prohibition measures to allow the sale of medical liquors as a cure for influenza, black men drinking alcohol appeared to many whites as a major threat to public health and social order.
The histories of France and Britain likewise provide numerous, unfortunate examples of state authorities hypocritically and haphazardly blaming vice and intoxicant use within ethnic minority communities for the spread of disease and disorder. As historian Robert Peckham detailed several years ago in an excellent article in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, British colonial authorities in Hong Kong routinely blamed opium smoking among the Chinese and Chinese-owned opium dens for plague and cholera outbreaks in the region during the late 1800s.
During the 1894 plague epidemic, for example, colonial authorities in Hong Kong argued that the disease spread throughout China “nesting comfortably among the opium bales” infecting the dregs of Chinese society at the country’s many “dens of death.” And back in England, officials and physicians warned that importing opium from China also meant importing infectious disease. As one doctor called Keeley wrote, “From the East comes the scourge of cholera and the infinite plague of opium smoking.” Though raw opium consumption in China was generally moderate and medicinal and crime and debauchery more connected to Hong Kong’s European-owned dens, Chinese opium became in the time of pandemic a “contagious commodity” to be feared and regulated by the Empire.
Similar instances of othering and blaming intoxication among minority communities can be found in French colonial history. In French occupied North Africa during the 1800s, hashish consumption and cafés maures (“Moorish cafés”) where the drug was sold and consumed were often targeted by military and colonial administrators as founts of disorder and disease. During the French occupation of Egypt (1798-1801) first launched by then General Napoleon, the occupying government briefly established by France, in an effort to affirm social order and slow the spread of plague, prohibited hashish use and closed the cafés where it was sold. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France, General Jacques “Abdallah” Menou prohibited hashish in October 1800, arguing that the plague spread in Egypt most frequently among those who “abused hashish and other strong liquors” and “frequented brothels, cafes, and cabarets” where their “excesses cost them freedom, life, and honor.” In the middle 1800s, as medical and recreational hashish was all the rage among the bourgeoisie of Paris, colonial authorities in Algeria targeted hashish consumption among indigenous Muslims as a threat to public help and cafés maures as unhygienic locusts of anti-colonial dissent.
As this brief survey shows us, hypocritically blaming the use of intoxicants by ethnic and religious minority communities is unfortunately routine for Western governments in times of social conflict and pandemic. And the U.S. Surgeon General’s recent calls for black and brown Americans to “step up” and say no to drugs and alcohol to combat higher rates of infection in their communities represents yet another misguided attempt to blame historically oppressed peoples for the social, racial, and health injustices they face.
Denise A. Herd, “Prohibition, Racism and Class Politics in the Post-Reconstruction South,” Journal of Drug Issues 13:1 (1983): 77-94.
Quoted in Ibid., 84.
Marni Davis, Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition (New York University Press, 2012), 126-30.
Quoted in Elizabeth Schlabach, “The Influenza Epidemic and Jim Crow Public Health Policies and Practices in Chicago, 1917-1921, The Journal of African American History (Winter 2019): 31-58, 36.
Robert Peckham, “Honk Kong Junk: Plague and the Economy of Chinese Things,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 90:1 (Spring 2016): 32-60.