Civil Liberties

Whites More Likely to Be Drug Addicts Than Blacks; So Why Do Racial Drug Stereotypes Persist?

The racial undertones that permeate the discussion of Whitney Houston’s death are trading on the stereotype that most drug abusers are black -- which simply isn't true.

Since Whitney Houston's death from circumstances still undetermined, the media attention on drug abuse, alcohol and addiction has exploded. Houston, whose career spanned three decades during which she garnered numerous awards and is still the only artist to score seven consecutive Billboard number one hits, reportedly had a history of drug and alcohol problems that news commentators have highlighted in their reporting about the continued impact of legal and illegal drugs. But the way some commentators have discussed Houston's death has exposed the extent to which racial stereotypes still color national discourse.

On Fox, criticizing Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters' comments that House Republicans are "demons," Eric Bolling said: "What is going on in California? How's this? Congresswoman, you saw what happened to Whitney Houston. Step away from the crack pipe. Step away from the Xanax. Step away from the Lorazepam. Because it's going to get you in trouble." Bolling later said he was "kidding about the crack pipe," adding, "but obviously the rhetoric, you know."

Bolling's colleague and co-host, Andrea Tantaros, dismissed the criticism over Bolling's racially charged comments, asking, "How is that a racist remark?" She went on to say: "I believe that white people are also addicted to crack, not just blacks. And if I'm not mistaken, Whitney Houston, who was a beautiful, talented singer, was addicted to crack....When you inject race into everything, you legitimize when people are actually, really, genuinely making racist remarks, which Eric Bolling was absolutely not doing." She further stated:

TANTAROS: On the other hand, Maxine Waters decides to call Speaker [John] Boehner and [Rep.] Eric Cantor "demons." OK. I don' t see how that's acceptable. I'm not going to inject race somehow and say she doesn't like white people. I wouldn't do that. … I'm just so sick and tired of people injecting race and people injecting gender and people injecting religion into this debate. I'm just sick of it -- really am. And Eric Bolling meant nothing by it.

The L.A. County Democratic Party has called on Fox to fire Bolling. As the Los Angeles Times reported, chairman Eric C. Bauman called Bolling's remarks "insensitive and inappropriate" and a "horribly offensive characterization of a longtime member of Congress." Bauman added: "At worst … Bolling's comment oozes racism, which serves to discredit a strong African American woman by perpetrating racial stereotypes. Regardless of whether this remark was deliberate or offhand -- it was irresponsible, despicable and reprehensible."

On their Los Angeles radio show, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou referred to Houston as a "crack ho" and wondered why her death "took this long":

KOBYLT: So, how much of a pain in the ass do you think she was? Can you imagine -- you're Clive Davis, and she has not been -- she hasn't had her head screwed on right for 20 years? And at some point you're just sick of it all. And so is everybody else in the industry -- all her friends and hangers-on, just everybody who knew her had to deal with this and were like, oh. Jesus -- 

[…]

KOBYLT: Here comes the crack ho again, what's she going to do? Oh, look at that, she's doing handstands next to the pool. Very good, crack ho, nice -- but -- after a while everybody's exhausted. And then you find out she's dead. It's like, really, took this long? I am just saying that's the natural reaction, people get worn out by this stuff.

Kobylt and Chiampou were subsequently suspended for what the station, KFI AM 640, deemed "insensitive and inappropriate" comments. The hosts apologized.

Bolling and the "John & Ken" hosts have been accused of racial insensitivity in the past. Bolling has made racially charged comments while talking about President Obama, and Kobylt and Chiampou have made inflammatory and offensive comments when discussing poor children, gay men, Koreans and Korean Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos.

Talking about the Houston comments on MSNBC's The Ed Show, Lehigh University professor James Peterson said:

PETERSON: I think we need to have more public conversations. People think we're post-race, but we can't even have the right kinds of constructive, productive conversations about race. I think also we have to progress that conversation to understanding the intersectionality between gender and race because two out of three of these comments really are more about gender, because the whole, the term "crack ho" is a gender-biased term, right? Because men smoke crack as well.

And I would bet dollars to donuts that those women become targets because they're women and because they're blacks. So, there's an intersectional sort of discussion that we've got to have to move these along. And yes, we've gotta have these public conversations and public discourses around the ways in which race still infiltrates our conversations and our ideologies."

Peterson concluded by urging the media and others to highlight comments like these and have the same sort of conversation "so we can start to sensitize people to some of this insensitive language."

But there's another issue here as well.

The racial undertones that permeate the discussion of Houston's death are trading on the oft-used stereotype that most drug abusers are black -- a misconception that continues to persist even though studies show that "African Americans are significantly less likely to have substance use disorders than their white counterparts." A 2009 study found that while the number of African Americans in state prisons for drug offenses declined -- due partly to "a decrease in the use of crack cocaine in predominantly minority urban neighborhoods" -- the "corresponding number of whites in state prisons for drug offenses rose."

However, as the Baltimore Sun reported, because crack is reportedly more prevalent in poor communities, "it has disproportionately affected African Americans: 85 percent of offenders sentenced under the law have been African American, and 5 percent white." This is a problem President Obama highlighted during his 2008 campaign, and in 2010, he signed a new law reducing the disparity between federal mandatory sentences for crack and powder cocaine convictions.

The majority of media coverage has rightly focused on the toll addiction and drug abuse can take on even the rich and famous, without needing to make oblique references to Houston's race. When Bolling, Tantaros and others bring up race in the context of Houston's death, and in outrageously bigoted language, it's clear their aim is something other than the truth. Yes, drugs have decimated certain African American neighborhoods and wounded black families, but the disproportionate emphasis on the drug crimes of African Americans stems from prejudice, not empirical fact.

Solange Uwimana is an editor and researcher at Media Matters for America. This article does not reflect the views of Media Matters.