Historical Method and the Noble Lie
A Reply to Donna Murch
Oct 23, 2015
18 Min read time
Mass incarceration is so politicized that we can't talk about its origins.
Cleveland Robinson standing on the second floor balcony of the National Headquarters of the March on Washington in Harlem in 1963. Photograph: O. Fernandez / World Telegraph & Sun, via Library of Congress.
[Ed. note: Michael Javen Fortner responds to “Who’s to Blame for Mass Incarceration?” Donna Murch’s review of his new book.]
My book Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment has generated some controversy. It complicates that dominant racial explanation for mass incarceration, arguing that working- and middle-class African Americans confronted the ravages of urban decline and violence in the 1960s and ’70s by inviting the penal arm of the state into their neighborhoods in order to restore calm and public safety. Some have praised the book for giving voice to black crime victims, and others have accused me of blaming the victim and validating mass incarceration. Donna Murch makes the latter point in a fascinating review of the book published in these pages. However, her analysis bespeaks a more profound controversy: the politicization of the history of mass incarceration.
While Murch should be applauded for attending to details and nuances my other critics have either ignored or missed, she still misreads my central claim when she lambastes me for overstating black agency. “Thus black people themselves, rather than the rightward drift of American politics, are responsible for the huge numbers of Africans Americans languishing in prison,” she writes. But the book does not offer a monocausal theory proposing that working- and middle-class African Americans compelled the American political system to adopt punitive approaches. Early in the book, I write, “Working- and middle-class African Americans’ dread of urban black crime and suspicion of the urban black poor were deeply consequential. But African American activism alone was not decisive.” The drug laws were the product of a complex conjuncture of social and political factors, including the indigenous black construction of crime and drug addiction and the “rightward drift of American politics.” (I have an entire chapter on the “drift.”) My book shows that the timing of the drug laws was directly tied to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s desire to appeal to an increasingly conservative Republican Party base and documents how the governor exploited black anti-crime activism to frame and defend his draconian proposals.
Nevertheless, to dismantle her version of my argument, Murch works hard to establish black powerlessness, and she does so by furnishing an ahistorical account of postwar politics in New York City. Talking with a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education about the book, she notes, “African-Americans were a disempowered minority at the time. The Voting Rights Act wasn’t law until 1965, and many Northern blacks were new migrants from the South who faced barriers to participating in urban political machines.” Yet postwar Harlem enjoyed a powerful black Democratic organization epitomized by its iconoclastic U.S. Representative Clayton Powell, Jr., who frequently and successfully battled the Tammany organization.
More than that, blacks in Harlem and throughout the city used their voting power to achieve substantial goals. In her seminal book To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City (2006), Martha Biondi writes that Black New Yorkers “changed the social, political, and cultural landscape of New York City.” Biondi credits local black mobilization for significant policy gains in the 1940s and ’50s. My book builds on this observation by documenting the ways African American residents, activists, and politicians used their influence to introduce into the public sphere a conception of crime and drug addiction that Rockefeller cynically manipulated for his own purposes.
While African Americans in postwar New York may not have been entirely powerless, it is certainly plausible that they were also not punitive. Murch takes me to task, saying I am “deaf to Harlem residents’ demands for more social welfare and state redistribution to alleviate poverty, the primary cause of crime itself.” Yet she never marshals evidence to show that these demands sounded loudest. We are simply asked to accept her version of black politics in New York City. But as I mention in the book, “The question is not whether African Americans supported punishment at the expense of structural solutions but the conditions under which this occurred. The issue is not whether but when.”
African Americans introduced a conception of crime and drug addiction that Rockefeller cynically manipulated for his own purposes.
The pressing nature of the crime threat forced working- and middle-class African Americans to prioritize security above all else. In a 1969 anti-crime report, the New York City Chapter of the NAACP railed against the “reign of criminal terror in Harlem.” This report, too, was not blind to the structural origins of crime. Still, after reviewing this sociology, the document pressed its main point: “the reign of criminal terror must be stopped now. For the decent people of Harlem, this issue is as crucial as any other. This is quite literally a matter of life and death.” In 1970 the Atlanta Daily World, the local black newspaper, lamented that “stiffer measures, all the way up to capital punishment, seem to be the only tangible way to protect that portion of society, which has not fallen under the heels of hardship and become animals.” “It goes hard for the Christian heart to say this,” the editorial added.
Murch frowns on this and other evidence and launches an unsatisfying methodological critique. According to her, I zero in on a “handful” of activists who operated outside the mainstream of African American life and rely on a “handful” of primary source documents and “selective” coverage of local newspapers. Any fair-minded reader of the book and reviewer of my footnotes will find much more than a handful of this and that. Nevertheless, Murch could have been on to something. It is possible that my process for selecting sources systematically biased my results. However, she never expounds on this point or explains how my modus operandi prevented me from discovering other materials that would have illuminated the actual beliefs of everyday black folks better than the 1969 NAACP Anti-Crime Report or editorials from black newspapers. In a recent Journal of American History article on black mobilization against the War on Drugs in Los Angeles, she does briefly ponder these questions, stating, “For scholars attempting to recover this history, the techniques of ethnography and oral history are essential.” Consistent with this shrewd point, I reviewed all the original transcripts from the interviews Kenneth Clark’s researchers conducted for his classic ethnographic study Dark Ghetto (1965) and read the follow-up interviews for a 1966 Kraft, Inc. survey of Harlemites, which provided needed context for the survey’s key findings. For some reason, Murch does not acknowledge or interrogate my use of these documents.
In her review and other writings, Murch makes a profound case that analysts writing histories of mass incarceration must probe the representativeness of African American crime attitudes. With this admonition in mind, my strategy is to test the views reflected in these writings against available survey evidence. If the activists and residents I focus on were atypical, then polling evidence should expose that. However, surveys confirm the prevalence of punitive black attitudes: a 1973 New York Times survey found that 71 percent of black respondents favored life sentences without parole for drug dealers, and three out of five blacks favored the death penalty for some crimes. Murch is suspicious of media polls but she never tells us why. Is there something about the methodology of this or other surveys that is particularly ineffective when it comes to assessing black political opinion? Murch has nothing to say about this, and I know why. Recent scholarship bolsters the validity of these findings. In an article entitled “Guess who used to be okay with the death penalty?”, statistician and political scientist Andrew Gelman reports, “At the beginning of the time series, the races did not differ so much on capital punishment. As the decades went on, though, the races have diverged, to the point in which this punishment is strongly opposed by African Americans.” He adds that his findings, based on sophisticated quantitative analysis of dozens of national polls taken over a fifty-year span, are “consistent” with claims “about the strong black support for aggressive policing in the 1960s.”
Although Murch’s attack on my methods and evidence is lacking, she smartly objects to my designation of the “black silent majority.” It is possible that the black silent majority is a conceptual contrivance rooted in a sinister racial history that I inappropriately imposed on the working- and middle-class residents of Harlem. She declares, “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.”
The wisdom of her skepticism notwithstanding, her conclusion is not on a strong footing. Not only do I discuss in great detail Nixon’s failed attempt to cultivate conservative black supporters, but I also distinguish this group from the everyday African Americans, activists, and organizations that explicitly and implicitly appropriated the trope of the silent majority to frame their plight and articulate their grievances. Almost a year before Moynihan’s memo, Vincent Baker, chairman of the NAACP’s Anti-Crime Committee, told state legislators, “The silent majority in Harlem would welcome a police order to get tough.” Two years later, the city’s major black newspaper, the Amsterdam News, reported, “Some sections of the so-called Harlem business section after nightfall [look] like a ghost town. People continue to be afraid to walk the streets at night. Churches, lodges and other fraternal organizations curtail or even discontinue services and meetings.” The editorial added, “The Silent Majority of Harlemites who sit by and watch their community be taken over by the criminal elements without taking any kind of stand are simply surrendering to these elements.”
For Murch, there’s no there there. That most black legislators voted against the drug laws calls into question the very existence of the black silent majority, no less its relevance. This critique, however, evinces a narrow understanding of politics and glosses over, once more, the book’s central argument and its theoretical foundations. “The black silent majority’s significance,” I explain, “was not in the number of votes it was able to garner for Rockefeller’s program but the alternative frame it introduced into the policy arena, which denigrated junkies and dismissed structural remedies.” It is possible for black elected officials and the communities they serve to espouse contradictory policy preferences. Politicians can have their own ideas and interests, and the partisan and bureaucratic organizations in which they operate shape how they pursue their goals. Many black legislators voted against the drug laws because, as one poll showed, they understated “the negative impact of [serious] problems on the residents’ acceptance of their life in Harlem.” On the other side, many conservative legislators representing New York’s white silent majority opposed their governor’s original proposal and, based on their values and expertise, intervened to make the bill much less punitive. In the end, partisan considerations were paramount for all the involved. Republicans wanted to spare their governor an ignominious legislative defeat, and Democrats endeavored to deny Rockefeller a victory.
This is not a unique case. In 1994 the Congressional Black Caucus, after initially opposing the Clinton crime bill, became convinced that the law’s defeat would imperil Clinton’s presidency. So they rushed to his aid, guarding the influence they had accrued during their party’s control of Washington. None of this should come as a surprise to Murch; she puts forth similar claims in her Journal of American History article. After acknowledging that most members of the Caucus supported President Reagan’s war on drugs, she informs her readers that black officials “cannot be used as the sine qua non of black popular opinion.” Thus, when it suits her, she allows that robust grassroots African American activism might not be reflected in the votes of their elected officials—an allowance she does not extend to me.
In general, Murch seems to ignore the theoretical machinery driving the book. I employ the insights of historical institutionalism, which, as political scientists Paul Pierson and Theda Skocpol teach us, takes “time seriously” and pays attention to “context and configurations” in order to analyze the “combined effects of institutions and processes.” Politics, from this perspective, consists of diverse actors with particular ideas and interests and many working parts that need not operate according to the same logic or a preordained design. The origins of dramatic policy change, then, are complicated but not mystical, structured but not entirely deliberate. Accordingly, Black Silent Majority positions itself against simplicity—against racial and economic social theories that flatten political organizations, disregard historical contingencies, and posit a linear path between power and policy. Based on careful study of every major and minor narcotics control policy in New York State from the end of World War II until 1973, the book concludes that the timing and design of the drug laws emerged from the complex conjuncture of Rockefeller’s ambitions, the black silent majority’s framing, the ideas and influence of bureaucrats and law enforcement officials, and the organizational morass bred by prior legislation.
The carceral state is demeaning and destructive, but I don’t see bogeymen. This is enough to make me the enemy of anti-racist movements.
Murch not only loses sight of the book’s theoretical moorings and much of its empirical content but also sifts the evidence through her own political filter. Her discussion of my treatment of Malcolm X and A. Philip Randolph is noteworthy for its selectivity. She castigates me for labeling activists she admires “unrepresentative.” According to her, Malcolm X was “our black prince.” Maybe. This is an empirical question. In a 1964 New York Times poll of black New Yorkers, only 6 percent of respondents reported that Malcolm X was “doing the best for Negroes.” More than 50 percent said that the NAACP was, while only 3 percent mentioned black Muslims. Malcolm X, it seems, was not everyone’s black prince. And Murch only recalls some of what her black prince thought about crime. In the early ’60s, he, Randolph, and other local black leaders formed a committee to battle crime, drug addiction, and other aspects of urban decline. As Murch suspects, the committee called for structural solutions and rehabilitation for drug users. When it came to “pushers,” however, they embraced punishment: “ample effort [must] be made to apprehend the pusher and that a life time sentence without parole be made the punishment to meet the crime of pushing narcotics.” It seems that even her black prince sought drastic measures against drug dealers. Yet she never wrestles with this inconvenient detail.
Murch labors tirelessly to overlook any source that challenges her perception of the African American community. This is not surprising; she also does so in her book Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party (2010). At one point she declares, “The state response to Watts as much as the popular uprising itself did much to radicalize California’s urban communities in its wake.” Evidence does not follow this striking claim: we are just supposed to take her word for it. We shouldn’t. Substantial survey evidence hampers her dogged pursuit of a black radical past. In a 1966 national Harris Poll, 62 percent of African Americans said Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, was “helping” the “Negro cause of Civil Rights,” while only 18 percent said black power advocate Stokely Carmichael was helping. In fact, 34 percent said Carmichael was hurting the cause. That same year, a Newsweek poll revealed similar attitudes: 64 percent of African Americans approved of Wilkins, while just 19 percent approved of Carmichael. Two years later, a CBS News poll found that only 6 percent of African Americans agreed with Carmichael’s program. A 1970 ABC News poll of African Americans in Baltimore, Birmingham, Detroit, New York, and San Francisco revealed that 83 percent of African Americans viewed the NAACP favorably, while just 37 percent viewed the Black Panthers favorably. About 30 percent held an unfavorable view of the Black Panthers. And what was Wilkins saying at this moment? “It is too early to raise a victory cry, but a reaction is setting in that could make the demand for order far louder than the emotional call to race.” None of this matters to Murch: the statement of a legendary civil rights leader and all of this attitudinal data—solicited by different news organizations and polling agencies and culled from African Americans across the nation—are, for some unknown reason, not good enough to be credible evidence.
To further discredit my scholarship, Murch damns me by association, placing me in the same category as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Charles Murray, and Rudolph Giuliani. In her view, my book “harkens back to an era of social science innocent of charges of racial bias and prurient representations of African American deviance.” Her portrayal of my politics and intellectual inheritances ignores the subjects in the book. It silences the victims of crime. To be clear, Moynihan and Murray show up in the book, but they are bit players in a larger, more intricate story. The real actors are the black residents, activists, and officials who, in response to the threat posed by drug addiction and crime, drew upon their middle-class morality and defined “junkies” and “pushers” as the other. It was working- and middle-class African Americans in Harlem and other cities who provided the “prurient representations of African American deviance.” For example, the Chicago Defender, the prominent black newspaper, published several cartoons concerning “black-on-black crime,” a term used by the paper. The two cartoons I feature in the book depict African American “hoods” as dark, menacing characters destroying communities and assaulting black women. Murch’s review conveniently glosses over these cartoons and innumerable statements in which black folk denigrate and despise “junkies” and “pushers.” Rather, she imposes my voice on theirs. It is not black people expressing themselves; it is Michael Javen Fortner, a “young African American political scientist” inspired by racist old white men. The accusation lacks academic grace and rings hollow.
Murch is demonstrably right about one thing: I have accused some of my critics of a “political witch-hunt,” although I have never used those exact words. In particular, historians within this literature have proven hostile to contrary viewpoints and alternative explanations for mass incarceration. If you don’t toe the line and embrace an absolutist racial position with an evangelical fervor—seeing white supremacy in every nook and cranny of black life—then the hunt commences. In this vein, Murch insists that Black Silent Majority “takes aim at the anti-racist ideas that have inspired much of the youthful protest of the past several years.” Betraying a dangerous lack of imagination, she considers my attempt to deepen our understanding of the origins of mass incarceration an affront to criminal justice reform movements. Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, while I am critical of Michelle Alexander’s causal arguments, I also praise her for documenting “with brutal clarity the ways in which punishment has perpetuated racial inequality in the post–civil rights era.” I also state unequivocally that “mass incarceration represents a glaring and dreadful stain on the fabric of American history. The carceral state is unfair, demeaning, and destructive.” At the same time, I don’t see bogeymen. I reject conspiracy theories. My book uncovers tragic ironies and the complex interactions of multiple variables. It appears that this is enough to make me the enemy of anti-racist movements, but there is no reason that the intricacies of mass incarceration should dissuade anyone working against it.
Sadly, Murch’s review missed an exciting opportunity. It is full of promise. Unlike those who immediately resort to the ad hominem, she began what could have been a meticulous and important discussion of my method and built on that analysis to make a powerful statement about how we should study the history of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, she never finishes her work, for two important reasons. First, she refuses to do so. Alarmed by what she perceives as my own beliefs, she decides to disregard the complexities of my political theory and to rebuke what she deems my naive faith in black agency. All of this, of course, is in defense of a noble lie: the puzzling notion that criminal justice reform can only be carried on the wings of a single narrative—a reductionist one that fetishizes black powerlessness and wallows in a fatalistic vision of American society.
Second, she couldn’t finish the work. Her historical method is wanting. It is one thing to malign evidence. That is easy. It is quite another to delineate specific reasons why some sources are better than others. Social scientists are empowered and constrained by clear theoretical propositions about the validity and strength of data and data-generation processes. Murch’s historical approach neither suffers these limitations nor reaps any of their benefits. In this analytical valley, dogma and self-righteousness bloom. As her review of my book shows, she lacks a precise and consistent framework for assessing the quality of evidence. It is crucial to question sources, but where does leeriness end and accuracy begin? Without a clear rubric for handling empirical questions, there is no self-restraint; the researcher is licensed to fashion history in his or her own image. The bitter irony of Murch’s critique is that it makes her seem like many of the liberals in Black Silent Majority who exhibited an ideological vainglory and attempted to impose their truth on working- and middle-class blacks desperately seeking to be heard.
October 23, 2015
18 Min read time