Cracks in the system: How discourse, dominance and whiteness shape maternal drug health policy

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Assata Zerai


Discourse, Dominance, Whiteness, Maternal, Drug, Health policy

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology | Women's Studies


In the mid-1980s, during the national "War on Drugs," crack cocaine emerged in our inner cities, adding a new dimension to the issue of illicit drug use in the United States. Early government efforts at combating cocaine use concentrated on drug trafficking. Toward the end of the decade, the focus shifted to include a new battle, to saving innocent 'crack babies' from their destructive 'crack moms.' A wide variety of research has been conducted on the emergence of the stereotypical 'crack mom,' particularly in the area of discourse and its relationship with policy approaches aimed at solving the problem of maternal drug use. Drawing on research by Gomez (1997), Humphries (1999) and Zerai and Banks (2002), this study examines how societal institutions act as sites of oppression and domination by focusing on the ways in which these social structures work together to reify systems of inequality through the use of discourse.

The use of an intersectional framework, as developed by feminists of color, examines the complexities involved in the discourse and actions involved in the adoption of sanctions for pregnant cocaine users, exposing systems of oppression. The addition of whiteness theory focuses the point of inquiry onto these sites of power. The combined use of content and discourse analysis of documents from 1985-2001 illustrate the ideological and political agendas that sought to demonize pregnant cocaine users in South Carolina as well as throughout the nation. These materials were gathered from a variety of sites in the areas of government, law and policy, medical sources as well as the media. In exploring the ways in which discourse flowed throughout each of these sites and analyzing it in comparison to the actions of policy makers, it was found that the establishment of criminalized 'crack mom' throughout the national cultural consciousness provided justification for adopting harsh sanctions against these women while providing a means to further the advancement of fetal rights.


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