Surviving oppression under the rock : New York drug laws and the lived experiences of African American women in distressed households
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Drawing on standpoint and intersectionality theories, this study explores the degree to which New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws and interactions between criminal, educational, and welfare policies have contributed to the maintenance of a culture of surveillance in which the lives of African American women in distressed households are overseen and influenced by oppressive policies and governmental institutions. Qualitative secondary analysis of longitudinal ethnographic data was conducted. Two detailed family cases are the focus of the study. Findings demonstrate multiple disadvantages that impoverished African American families struggling with alcohol and/or other drugs (AOD) use and/or sale experience. These disadvantages accumulated intergenerationally, in a snowball effect making it difficult for participants to maintain stable lives. For instance, oppressive policies, discrimination, poverty, AOD use, and violence hindered many participants’ ability to obtain a high school degree which in turn contributed to the obstacles they faced finding meaningful employment. Findings explored the tension between participants’ experiences with oppression and the multiple ways they either assimilated or resisted their oppression. While the Rockefeller Drug Laws assume that harsh sentences deter people from AOD use/sale, none of the participants mentioned imprisonment as a motivator to avoid AOD. Participants’ classification of crack, cocaine, and heroin as the most dangerous AOD were congruent with the Rockefeller Drug Laws’ classification of AOD. However, the way the law dispensed prison sentences reduced people to their AOD use because it disregarded all other aspects of their lives. Unlike the Rockefeller Drug Laws, participants found drug use to be sometimes a functional activity insofar as it was an additional source of income and a coping strategy in dealing with oppression. Findings indicate that simply addressing problematic AOD use among impoverished African American families in New York at the micro level is not sufficient or feasible. While it is important to examine and address individual needs and problems associated to AOD use, macro forces such as lack of meaningful employment for unskilled workers must be addressed. Social workers must foster critical thought, support an operational definition of AOD abuse/dependence, and advocate for social justice within the field of AOD use.