New Studies Show the “Crack Baby” Was a Media Myth Designed to Frighten Whites and Criminalize Black Children

It's only fair to share...Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on VKEmail this to someone


When you hear the term “crack baby, ” you might picture the movie Losing Isaiah with the screaming baby suffering due to his mother’s drug habit.

He was the classic crack baby: disruptive, troubled, and fictional.

Crack babies aren’t a real thing

Yes, some children were exposed in utero to cocaine, but there is no scientific literature to support the theory of the troubled crack baby.

The story of the crack baby myth is one based in racism, classism, politics, and ratings. It began with a doctor who thought that babies exposed to cocaine were suffering unique, extreme effects that would only increase as the children aged. His report was ratings gold.

Doctors at the time questioned the existence

There were doctors who disagreed with the crack baby label and attempted to dispel the myth. Dr. Clare Coles had noted that many of the signs of a crack baby were normal behaviors for premature babies. Yet her rebuttal didn’t make good news.

“Coles’ findings were ignored, however, because they didn’t fit into cultural stereotypes and failed to feed the media narrative. Reporters railed about an estimated $5 billion annual strain on the government, and everyone got extremely worked up because the concept of the “crack baby” plays into sadly familiar ideas of race and class. Since crack was relatively inexpensive and far more prevalent in poor areas, it was convenient to use this fear to justify classist and racist rhetoric (i.e., “poor, black neighborhoods bring their problems onto themselves and cost the rest of us by doing so”), ” Callie Beusman wrote in the article Good News: 1980s ‘Crack Babies’ Epidemic Was Hugely Overblown.

In an interview to the New York Times, Coles said, “There are certain ideas that people want to believe that really fit in with cultural stereotypes, and it’s hard to get rid of those.”

The crack mother was the worst welfare fear

In her book Living Color: Race and Television in the United States, Sarah Torres, a professor of information and media studies, explains the racism behind the media storm: “As a composite “she-devil, ” the crack mother takes the image of the welfare mother, so prominent in the demonology of Reaganism, and fuses it with the sexually aggressive Jezebel. […] A particularly menacing image of fertility, the crack mother personifies an out-of-control black sexuality.”

Torres references quotes from leaders at the time such as Rep. George Miller of the Select Committee on Children who said, “We’re going to have these children, who are the most expensive babies ever born in America, are going to overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come in contact with through the rest of their lives.”

Similarly, a Florida juvenile court judge William Gladstone said, “These kids have enormous, physical problems, mental problems. They will go into a system that is woefully inadequate, woefully underfunded. They’ll grow up to be tomorrow’s delinquents.”

These children weren’t seen as medically frail victims, instead they were presented as a future criminals.

What the research really says about crack babies

The fears about these children were unfounded as current research shows that “[a]lmost every prenatal complication originally thought to be due directly to [prenatal cocaine exposure] was found to result from confounding factors such as poor maternal nutrition, use of other drugs, depression, and lack of prenatal care.”

The studies are not condoning cocaine use. Instead, they found that the actual health impacts are limited, and the children outgrow them.

Poverty and the “crack baby” label hurt the children more

Some researchers think that the low expectations of being a “crack baby” did the most damage. As Michael Lewis, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, explained to the New York Times:
“in a doctor’s office or a classroom, ‘you cannot tell’ which children were exposed to cocaine before birth.

That report goes on to say that poverty related factors were much more damaging on children’s intellectual and emotional development. Researchers have also found that being labeled as a crack baby negatively impacted the children as they were stigmatized with every physical or behavioral problem being too quickly associated to the lost cause of being a crack baby.

The problem was discussed in an NPR interview with Dr. Hallam Hurt, neonatologist and professor of pediatrics:

Host Michel Martin: Do you worry, though, that a whole generation of kids [..] was written off essentially because people believed that they weren’t capable of very much? I wonder if you ever think that maybe more kids could’ve achieved at a higher level, if people had not been so quick to believe that they couldn’t do anything.

Dr. Hallam Hurt: I absolutely believe that. And I think that one of the most deleterious things is when a child might have been identified as quote, that pejorative term, crack kid, in school. And often they were written off.

These children were most definitely victims though the culprits turned out to be more complicated than drug abuse.

Had you heard this updated information? Are you surprised?

About Alicia B

Alicia lives and took a semester of photography in a small college town that often challenges her resolve to live as simply and as stress-free as possible. When she’s not working, rereading the same children’s books, cooking, or wondering how crunchy she’s become, she’s busy updating her site, You can follow her on facebook.