Who’s to Blame for Mass Incarceration?
Oct 16, 2015
17 Min read time
A man sits on the trunk of a Cadillac Fleetwood in Harlem, 1970. In his new book, Michael Javen Fortner argues that New York’s black population mostly backed the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which precipitated mass incarceration. Photograph: Camilo J. Vergara, via Library of Congress.
by Michael Javen Fortner
The images inspired by Michael Javen Fortner’s new book, Black Silent Majority, are revealing. A New Yorker review featured a graphic rendering of somber black men clad in orange jumpsuits imprisoned behind a fence made from the bodies of neatly dressed black men and women. Strikingly, the impediments are faceless, with only an occasional wisp of pink lip or sculpted facial hair, but the period-piece A-line skirts, peg leg suits, and skinny ties speak for themselves. The respectable classes of Fortner’s “black silent majority” form a literal wall of black human bondage. Through the magic of design, the book’s thesis is rendered in a deeply visceral way: African Americans themselves, not white backlash against black advancement, mobilized the phalanx behind mass incarceration.
• • •
Black Silent Majority is an ambitious and provocative book by a young African American political scientist, who argues that “working- and middle-class African Americans are partially responsible for the mass incarceration of black sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers and the misery that they endured while committed to penal institutions in New York.” Fortner takes aim at a whole body of scholarship, journalistic writings, and activist wisdom stressing the centrality of anti-black racism to the war on drugs and, by implication, mass incarceration. He directs particular ire at Michelle Alexander’s bestseller, The New Jim Crow (2010), which forcefully demonstrates how the drug war and the criminal justice system more broadly have become the biggest obstacle to black equality since legalized segregation.
One in three African American men will serve time in prison if present rates persist, leading Alexander to characterize mass incarceration as the most important contemporary form of “racialized social control.” Like the counter-revolution that overthrew Radical Reconstruction and established legalized segregation and convict leasing, mass incarceration’s origins lie, she argues, in the backlash against the successes of the modern black freedom struggle: “Mass incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.” Alexander’s interpretation is far from unique, reflecting a broad range of new scholarship that understands race and racism as essential to the punitive turn in American politics in the years after the Voting Rights Act.
In response, Fortner accuses Alexander and others of oversimplifying the origins of the modern carceral state by focusing on white backlash instead of black crime victims. “Despite the popularity of such theories,” Fortner argues, “they mask more than they expose . . . crime victims are rendered invisible.” This scholarship is guilty of “ignoring black agony.” He sets about reclaiming the “agency” of “working- and middle-class African Americans” suffering at the hands of “junkies” and a pervasive “black underclass” sprouted from the urban decay of the 1960s and ’70s.
On Fortner’s telling, the supposed black silent majority countered a tide of intra-racial violence with a successful movement against drugs and crime culminating in the passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the takeoff of mass incarceration. Thus black people themselves, rather than the rightward drift of American politics, are responsible for the huge numbers of Africans Americans languishing in prison. “Mass incarceration had less to do with the white resistance to racial equality and more to do with the black silent majority’s confrontation with the ‘reign of criminal terror’ in their neighborhoods,” he asserts.
Central to Fortner’s revisionist project is his desire “to tell it like it is.” The choice of black vernacular signifies his claim to an authentic black voice as well as his willingness to say unpopular things in service of a larger truth. Black Silent Majority opens with a very personal recollection of his traumatic childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, punctuated by sirens and gunshots at the height of the 1980s crack crisis. As a toddler, Fortner lost his brother to a stabbing, “the pain and sorrow” of which “stayed in [his] home like accumulated dust.”
Reading Fortner, one sometimes has the feeling of passing through the racial looking glass and arriving in a strange world where the unlikely pairing of Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan are used to restore historical agency to African Americans. Fortner does not shy away from the words “ghetto,” “social pathology,” and “indigenous values,” nor do they appear in the distancing embrace of quotation marks. Elsewhere, he casually references Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984) to provide black-on-black-crime statistics. In many respects, Black Silent Majority harkens back to an era of social science innocent of charges of racial bias and prurient representations of African American deviance.
Indeed, Fortner’s appropriation of the term “silent majority” is loaded and politicized. The phrase was, after all, central to the Republican rhetoric that mobilized a socially conservative electorate against “Beatniks, taxes, riots, and crime,” in Ronald Reagan’s words. Coined by Richard Nixon in 1969, the term “silent majority” referred to the nameless, faceless white voters alienated by radical protest, opposition to the Vietnam War, and, perhaps most importantly, the full incorporation of African Americans into the Democratic Party. Over time, the phrase came to signify angry white Republican voters, especially those drawn from the suburban periphery and the American South. Disillusioned by racial liberalism, this disgruntled group abandoned the “mommy party” in search of a politics of law and order and restored national pride. In essence, it was the political and electoral expression of white flight.
Black Silent Majority sets out to prove that, surprisingly, African Americans led this political shift toward punitive crime and drug policy. According to Fortner, one of the most virulent expressions of anti-liberalism arose from the class conflict inside America’s postwar “black ghettos.” He sketches an “indigenous black morality,” distinct from the law-and-order campaigns of the Nixon administration, that responded to a violent crime wave in their segregated neighborhoods. A handful of black ministers, civic leaders, and ordinary people rallied in support of draconian penalties for drug crimes. Through the “media attention and the activism” generated by this energetic group of Harlemites, New York politicians were “forced” to reckon with the new punitive agenda black activists were pushing. Fortner explains:
The black silent majority supported the regulation and removal of the poor, whom they blamed for urban blight and violence in the streets. After tilting the discursive terrain in the direction of racial equality during the struggles of the civil rights movement, working- and middle-class African Americans tilted it in favor of punitive crime policies and against economic justice for the black urban poor. As a result, the black silent majority created an opportunity for the ambitious governor to achieve his own goals and laid the groundwork for mass incarceration.
There is only one problem: no electoral basis exists for this expansive claim, which hinges on a phrase signifying race-based party realignment. In fact, the majority of New York’s black politicians did not support the Rockefeller Drug Laws, nor did their constituents abandon the Democrats for the party of law and order. It is clear from a memo Moynihan sent Nixon in 1970—which includes the term “silent black majority”—that the president’s advisors hoped to cultivate a religious and politically and socially conservative segment of the African American community, but Fortner provides no definitive evidence that a black silent majority existed in reality, as opposed to political rhetoric.
Fortner sets out to prove that, surprisingly, African Americans led the political shift toward punitive crime and drug policy.
Faced with the inconvenient truth that the overwhelming majority of black elected officials opposed the Rockefeller drug laws—which he doesn’t discuss explicitly—Fortner offers tenuous suppositions that lead him into ever-murkier historical waters. The first is his assertion that black politicians, in the years immediately after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, did not represent the true sentiments of their constituents. “African American elected officials had become more liberal than their constituents because of a generational shift in black politics,” he writes. “In 1973 a large portion of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus were relatively new members of the legislature and were anchored in the radical politics of the 1960s rather than in traditional black civil society.”
From a writer foregrounding black agency, the dismissal of this pioneering generation of African American elected officials is somewhat disorienting. After all, the late 1960s and early ’70s witnessed the high tide of the Black Power movement, which found direct expression in electoral politics as the first significant cohort of black politicians entered municipal, state, and federal politics since Radical Reconstruction. Their assumption of office was made possible by a long hard struggle against disfranchisement in the South and gerrymandering of black voter districts in the North. Even more disturbing is Fortner’s erasure of key figures from Harlem’s homegrown intelligentsia, which suggests that working- and middle-class blacks had more in common with disgruntled white voters. Thus he makes brash statements about Harlem’s political culture in the postwar years, most egregiously dismissing Malcolm X as a figure “not favored by large swaths of New York City’s black community.”
So if both African American elected officials and Malcolm X, a former drug user and prisoner memorialized by Ossie Davis as “our own black shining Prince,” are rendered largely irrelevant to the political culture of black New York in the 1960s, who is integral? The lynchpin of Black Silent Majority is a little-known character in Harlem history, Reverend Oberia D. Dempsey, pastor of the Upper Park Avenue Baptist Church and longtime anti-vice crusader. He and a handful of other conservative ministers in Harlem, including Baptist clergymen George W. McMurray and Reverend Earl B. Moore appeared in a press conference with Rockefeller in January of 1973 to express support for the governor’s new drug laws. Dempsey, a former youth minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church and confidant of Rockefeller’s, had been an anti-crime activist since the early 1960s. Fortner argues somewhat convincingly that Dempsey represented a sector of black elites and civil advocates, especially those drawn from the ranks of conservative clergy and the NAACP, who emphasized the horrors of crime.
The problem comes when Fortner tries to make Dempsey represent much more: an allegedly monolithic, socially conservative working- and middle-class that he also refers to as “Harlem’s moral majority.” Curiously, Fortner never lays out with empirical precision who this class of people is and what economic parameters define them. Instead, this so-called black silent majority emerges in contrast to a pervasive black underclass whose “reign of criminal terror” (in the NAACP’s words) traumatized ordinary citizens. Again, this choice is a profoundly political one. A generation of scholars has debunked the very existence of a black underclass and shown it to be, much like the crack baby, an ideological fiction that rationalized the Reagan- and Bush-era agenda of welfare reform and mass incarceration. But Fortner uses this term innocently, as if here were talking about a quantifiable group with uncontested boundaries.
• • •
Historians, including Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Heather Ann Thompson from the National Research Council’s Committee on Law and Justice, have raised serious questions about Fortner’s use of sources and the overreach of his conclusions. Electoral results undermine Fortner’s thesis, so he focuses on the amorphous realms of cultural politics and “traditional black civil society” reflected in public transcripts from a handful of black ministers, selective coverage from local newspapers, theatrical productions, media polling data on crime, a handful of primary source documents from the NAACP, and the early journalism of William Raspberry. His use of newspapers is particularly troublesome because, as anyone who writes about crime knows, “what bleeds leads.” Newspapers have a vested interest in reporting sensationalized crime stories, and the press has often been a central instigator of moral panics, from the mythical “Negro cocaine fiend” of 1914 to the Reagan-era “crack epidemic.”
Historians have raised serious questions about Fortner’s use of sources and the overreach of his conclusions.
Equally problematic is Fortner’s use of the Amsterdam News as a window onto the thoughts and opinions of everyday people. At best, that Harlem newspaper provides a glimpse of how Manhattan’s black elites viewed a particular era. If Fortner had narrowed his conclusions to focus on the privileged segment of black mandarins represented by the Amsterdam News, Raspberry, portions of the NAACP leadership, and conservative clergy, he would have been on much firmer historical ground. With less sweeping conclusions, his book might have contributed to a better understanding of the class and ideological diversity of America’s best-known black metropolis. But, as it stands, Black Silent Majority gives a distorted and idiosyncratic view not only of Harlem, but also of postwar America more generally.
Fortner’s penchant for conceptual overreach is nowhere more evident than in his treatment of the history of the Republican Party itself. In the final chapter, he takes on the most difficult challenge to his thesis: the consensus view that the primary cause for Rockefeller’s shift toward an ultra-punitive stance on crime and drug policy was the political challenge from the right posed by California Governor Ronald Reagan. The aging Rockefeller longed to be president, and by the late 1960s he found himself increasingly marginalized in a Republican Party whose demographic base was shifting toward the Sunbelt. Reagan, a close ally of Barry Goldwater, forged an effective strategy of targeting those “rioters and beatniks” to appeal to resentful white working-class voters. Significantly, when Reagan defeated Democratic California incumbent Governor Pat Brown in 1966, he won the majority of white union households. That victory anticipated his presidential win in 1980 and the emergence of the infamous Reagan Democrat.
Rockefeller recognized these shifting ideological sands in the early ’70s. Not to be outdone by Reagan’s hardline stance on welfare, crime, and especially Black Power activism, the ambitious Rockefeller crushed the Attica rebellion and passed the nation’s toughest drug laws. Fortner equivocates on this point. Toward the end of the book he acknowledges how important this national calculus was to Rockefeller’s transformation, but lest it distract the reader from his singular focus on the black silent majority as causal agent, he elsewhere dismisses not only the importance of the “general mood of the national electorate,” but also that of race in party realignment:
From the black silent majority in urban black belts to the white silent majority in the suburban Sunbelt, the politics that defined the punitiveness and timing of the Rockefeller drug laws as well as the broader narcotics control regime was rooted in the politics of class rather than the politics of race.
On the far side of the racial looking glass, Rockefeller emerges much like a Pontius Pilate figure, whose sacrificial hand is forced by the angry protestations of working- and middle-class African Americans.
While Black Silent Majority’s liberties with the historical record are disconcerting, at a more philosophical level its insistence on interpreting trauma and responses to social crisis simply as resolute calls for punishment may be even more troubling. Though Fortner seeks to resurrect the lived experience of black people, he is deaf to Harlem residents’ demands for more social welfare and state redistribution to alleviate poverty, the primary cause of crime itself. Strikingly, he dismisses as unrepresentative Kenneth Clark, A. Philip Randolph, and black elected leaders who sought social democratic solutions to the problems of urban divestment, redlining, and institutionalized racism.
The book is deaf to Harlem residents’ demands for more social welfare and state redistribution to alleviate poverty.
Absent from Black Silent Majority is an examination of what happens when a marginalized community facing mass capital abandonment, job loss, and an urgent public health crisis is presented only one policy option: more policing and punishment. The book offers no discussion of the Nixon administration’s 1971 declaration of a war on drugs and its establishment three years earlier of the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which, through funding tough-on-crime measures, provided strong incentives for the punitive turn across the United States. This omission is not accidental. After all, Fortner’s thesis hinges on the idea that the vengeful campaign that culminated in the Rockefeller drug laws emerged from “indigenous construction” of an autarchic “black ghetto” riddled by class conflict and violence.
While Fortner declares his concern for black crime victims, his book exhibits a distinct lack of empathy not only for drug users but also for the ordinary Harlemites he ostensibly champions. He writes that Harlem “needed urban renewal as much as a cultural renaissance,” referring to the sorts of city building projects that tended to demolish poor and minority neighborhoods to make room for new development, highways, and other public works. He speaks of the black silent majority itself in somewhat contemptuous terms, explaining, for example, how “drug addicts . . . pilfered the symbols of their thin yet meaningful success: television sets, fur coats, and the hubcaps on their Cadillacs.” Ultimately, Fortner appears less interested in telling the stories of victimized people than in mobilizing their very existence to justify his claims that African Americans themselves were a driving force behind the drug war and mass incarceration and that an overwhelmingly reactionary black working- and middle-class repudiated black militancy and racial liberalism in favor of law and order.
• • •
In numerous popular and scholarly venues, Fortner has accused his critics, many of whom are fellow black academics, of a political witch-hunt. But this claim elides his book’s explicit ideological content. At its core, Black Silent Majority takes aim at the anti-racist ideas that have inspired much of the youthful protest of the past several years. Implicit in the Ferguson protests, Black Lives Matter, We Charge Genocide, and the panoply of new black activist organizations that have sprung up since Michael Brown’s murder in August 2014 is the understanding not only that mass incarceration and militarized policing are inherently anti-black, but also that the carceral state itself is an expression of white backlash against African American gains in the post-civil rights era.
A curious contradiction lies at the heart of Fortner’s book. While he decries the abuses of mass incarceration, if you take the activism of his black silent majority at face value, then mass incarceration would seem a logical and just outcome. In a recent New York Times op-ed, he inches toward precisely this position by valorizing an idea forcefully expressed by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: that African Americans’ failure to reckon with black-on-black crime calls into question their mobilization against police killings and state-sanctioned violence. Downplaying the expediency of social welfare efforts, Fortner asserts, “Long-term strategies provide little immediate relief from the daily horrors of urban crime. In the short run, we need the police . . . . [W]e can’t eliminate the propensity to over-police and over-imprison unless we curb the disorder and chaos that threaten and destroy urban black lives.”
There is no doubt that, within the large and diverse African American population in the United States, anti-crime sentiment existed both in the Rockefeller era and now. Indeed, in the Reagan years, the cry for punishment of drug sellers and users was much louder, and unlike in the early 1970s, this stance included a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus. It is hardly surprising that people who were forced to face the problems of poverty, addiction, and economic abandonment expressed anger and looked to the state for solutions. What Fortner misses about the overlapping wars on drugs and crime, though, is that the poorest among us are most likely to experience crime, and that includes low-income drug users, people working off the books, the formerly incarcerated, and other vulnerable populations. But they are not defined as victims, because that status is one of racial and class privilege. Black Silent Majority skillfully incorporates and blunts opposing arguments but refuses to take seriously the consequences of poverty, redlining, and other forms of structural exclusion.
As harm reduction specialist Gabor Maté has argued, behind every drug crisis lies a tale of social heartbreak. Selectively elevating conservative black voices that were themselves exploited for the political benefit of others is no way to honor that painful history or to prevent its repetition.
October 16, 2015
17 Min read time