Study: Is Crack Cocaine to Blame for Racial Achievement Gap?

A new study out of Northwestern University links the current achievement gap between black and white students to the rise in popularity of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s.

The authors conclude that the uptick in incarceration and murder rates after the arrival of the drug on urban streets coincided with declines in high school graduation rates among black students. Between 40% and 73% of that decline can be directly attributed to the growth of crack cocaine markets in the U.S., they say.

The study, authored by William N. Evans, Craig Garthwaite and Timothy J. Moore, shows that although the achievement gap between black students and their white peers predated the epidemic, the gap had narrowed substantially between 1960s and early 1980s in the wake of the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement.

Why this convergence stopped in mid-1980s has been a question that has been plaguing policy researchers since. The authors contend that much of this “stalled progress” could be explained by the timing of the arrival and spread of crack cocaine in cities and neighborhood around the country.

This finding also explains why it is specifically males who disproportionately drive the achievement gap. While in the years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the high school graduation rates for black males increased by 4.7% and for black females by 6.7%, between 1986 and now, the graduation for black males fell by a dramatic 5.7%. Black women saw only a drop of a single percentage point.

A number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain the convergence in educational outcomes between the 1960s and the mid-1980s, including improved parental education, reduced segregation, increases in school spending, and better access to health care. Less attention has been paid to the end of this convergence. Neal argues that pathways such as changes in the race-specific education-wage relationship, income shocks to black families, school factors, and cultural changes do not explain the trends and concludes: “It is not clear why the process of black-white skill convergence appeared to stop around 1990”. The chapters in Magnuson and Waldfogel examine factors such as changing family income, rising income inequality, relative changes in parental education, changes in school segregation, and changes in teacher quality as possible explanations for these trends. They conclude that while these factors may account for a slowing convergence, none explain the stalled progress.

One explanation that could explain both the convergence and stalled progress would be the introduction and growth of crack cocaine in to urban minority neighborhoods. Because crack cut the price of cocaine substantially, it became much more popular and made drug dealing a much more lucrative pursuit. Its emergence in Los Angeles, Miami and New York in 1982 was followed by its spread to other localities around the country and the competition for market share led to increased violence, murder and imprisonment.

These factors combined to substantially alter lifetime expectations for black males, and also led to a fall in high school graduation rates. Between the years of 1986 and 1996, when the number of high school graduates among black males fell the sharpest, as much as 73% of that decline could be directly attributed to the crack cocaine epidemic, say the authors.