“A Knock at Midnight”: Is the War on Drugs a War on Poor African Americans?

What Brittany K. Barnett doesn’t say in A Knock at Midnight

Ok, before I discuss this book at all, I have to address the elephant in the room: every imprisoned person profiled in it committed a crime.  Many people who were never imprisoned committed crimes, including the author. 


A Knock at Midnight is a compelling book, and author Brittany K. Barnett makes her case well.  The central premise of the book is that sentencing practices in the last 1990’s unfairly penalized people involved with crack over powder cocaine, which boiled down to penalizing poor people and Black people.  But the truth that Barnett never addresses, even though her story explicates it, is that for many of the people profiled, including Barnett herself, dealing in crack cocaine was seen as just another way to earn some money, totally normal.  Barnett writes often about how little each individual was involved in crack, but to be honest, its total normalcy in her community is chilling to me.  And maybe that had something to do with the insidious sentencing practices: the crack must have seemed pervasive. It was so normalized, it must have seemed almost impossible to stop.

I remember hearing about “crack” when it first appeared, and about how it was supposed to be much more addictive than regular cocaine. Personally, I have no idea, but I do remember the media coverage, and how scary the press made crack seem. I certainly thought that using cocaine was a big deal too, but I also remember how many films normalized cocaine use. So yes, I would say the media presentation of crack and cocaine was significantly different, just based on my impressions of the times.

Barnett says the dangers of cocaine and crack are basically the same. Ok, I have no way to tell one way or the other. And I would agree that for many people, white and otherwise, rich and otherwise, cocaine is probably somewhat normalized. But is trafficking in cocaine something lots of people do to pick up some extra cash, you know, like you might drive an Uber? That is my question; I don’t know the answer.

 There is another whole sub-context to this book that Barnett alludes to but never clearly makes: the people that got into the most trouble in this book were the people who were into it the least BECAUSE they weren’t pros. They didn’t know how to play the game…they believed the law would protect them…whatever. It’s that classic scenario in which the normally “good” kid is the one most likely to get caught.

Is that fair? Definitely not.

So there is the classic error that hurts most people: the pros know how to avoid legal problems.  Many of the people who ended up with ridiculous sentences did so because they went to court rather than “pleading out”.



What Brittany K. Barnett does say in A Knock at Midnight

An old cell signed by a bunch of people who visited the Cleveland Police Museum. gargantuen, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

An old cell signed by a bunch of people who visited the Cleveland Police Museum.

gargantuen, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Ok, having said gone into what Barnett ignores or skims over, A Knock at Midnight has a lot to say that should be said.  It doesn’t make any sense to me that people should spend decades, or life, behind bars because of relatively small mistakes.  Those are lives lost.  Then, when the incarnated people have children of their own, the children’s lives are put at risk.  Finally, long term incarcerations cost the public.


I have absolutely no doubt that drugs were and have been part of normal life for many people.  And that’s dangerous.  If there is one take away from this book, I hope that people realize the importance of staying away from it all. Many of the laws that sent the people profiled in this book to jail for decades have been changed, but still, the book shows how dangerous ANY association with the drug business can be, especially for people who don’t know what they are doing (as counter intuitive as that may be). 

But I also hope that because of this book, more people, especially those who would not be incarcerated as long under current laws, can get their lives back. And the lives of their children.  Enough is enough.

Brittany K. Barnett has information about her nonprofits, which assist the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, and their families. If you need or can give help, click here.

If you don’t have time to read (at least not yet), listen to this interview with Barnett on the Family Action Network:

Brittany K. Barnett is an activist with a clear point of view, but she’s an excellent writer who gives a voice to a group of people who need it.

Were the drug laws in the 1990’s inherently racist? I don’t know. Should they be changed? In many cases they have been; the issue is that the sentences given to people under them have not been changed. If you want a clear understanding of this side of the story, check this book out.