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book review: BLACK SILENT MAJORITY: THE ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS AND THE POLITICS OF PUNISHMENT

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BLACK SILENT MAJORITY: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment. By Michael Javen Fortner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2015.

 

Black Silent Majority proffers an alternative explanation for the emergence of mass incarceration in the post–Civil Rights era. Refuting the consensus of the origins of mass incarceration, most popularly averred by legal scholar Michelle Alexander, that white backlash against the black freedom movement spurred mass incarceration, Fortner locates the agency of black New Yorkers in the passage of the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws, asserting, basically, that “black-on-black crime,” rather than a reformulated white supremacy, explains the rise of the carceral state.
Between the 1940s and the early 1970s, the black silent majority, at first a quiescent, unorganized group of working-and-middle class black New Yorkers, mobilized a citywide movement in Harlem against heroin-related crimes and for the enforcement of punitive legislation. Fortner argues that with the conservative turn in national politics in the late 1960s and the punitive frame that the black silent majority ushered into the policy arena Governor Nelson Rockefeller embraced the demands of the black silent majority and sponsored punitive laws to authenticate his conservative credentials.
Fortner centers the movement for safety and punitive legislation around the activism of Reverend Oberia D. Dempsey—the pistol-toting pastor of the Upper Park Avenue Baptist Church—and other black leaders, such as Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dempsey, Wilkins, and others spoke of the visceral fear that black New Yorkers experienced at the hands of their neighbors. Fortner here convincingly highlights longstanding conditions of intraracial crime and violence within black America, then and now.
Though he powerfully calls attention to Harlemites’ fears of, and demands for, protection from intraracial crime, Fortner’s conceptual formulation of the black silent majority reduces the complexity and diversity of black activism to punishment. According to Fortner, since Harlemites discovered a measure of social mobility in the 1950s, their concern with the “white gaze,” waned. Consequently, “the violence in their communities forced them to prioritize public safety over economic and racial inequality”(9). Yet despite notable progress and because of deindustrialization and employer and union racism black New Yorkers’ job security was invariably vulnerable.
Fortner’s historical and conceptual claim that black punitive politics emerged in the 1950s is misleading. Since the early twentieth century, as historians Khalil G. Muhammad, Nathan D. B. Connolly, and others have shown, blacks had rarely been “silent” about eradicating intra-racial black crime. Blacks employed anti-crime politics not only to fight crime but also to make demands for the inclusion of black police officers, demonstrate their commitment to law and order, and to stave off violence from white police officers. Thus, if they were not silent, did black politics shift from a struggle for civil rights, as Fortner avers, to advocating punishment in postwar New York City?
Although Fortner’s use of media polls provides a measurement of public opinion at a given moment, he neither unpacks the data nor places it within its historical context. For example, using a poll in late 1973 from the New York Times, Fortner notes that “71 percent of black respondents favored life sentences without parole for pushers,” but he provides neither its sample size nor its racial breakdown (99). Does the number of blacks interviewed adequately represent the political diversity of the city’s large black population, which by late 1960s was more than half of a million people?
While Fortner’s polls are silent on black activism, scholarship by the late Adina Back, Martha Biondi, Johanna Fernandez, Brian Purnell, and Clarence Taylor, among others on postwar black New York disproves his claim that “racial issues were not high priorities for either blacks or whites” (229). Considering the long and rich tradition of black protest in Harlem, it is surprising that the movement for punitive legislation, as distinct from protection from crime, did not take greater organizational form as did protests against police brutality. For example, in the aftermath of the Harlem Riot of 1964, historian Marilynn S. Johnson in Street Justice traces the activism of the Unity Council of Harlem (UCH), a coalition of local associations, including black churches, small business organizations, labor groups, as well as established national organizations, such as the NAACP and the Nation of Islam. The coalition successfully pressured the city to establish a civilian review board, the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Fortner sidesteps the issue of racism as a determining aspect of the conservative countermovement, he writes “although many white ethnic police officers certainly did not hold positive views toward the black communities they policed, they reserved much of their ire for students protesters” (228). For Fortner, white ethnics’ values and class position mainly explained their behavior towards black people. Johnson, on the other hand, framed the opposition as an expression of the local white-backlash, citing the racist rhetoric not only of the PBA but also the John Birch Society and a neo-National Renaissance party.
In his examination of black Harlemites’ responses to drug-related intraracial crime, Fortner might have considered that blacks’ and Puerto Ricans’ distrust and fear of the police influenced their views on punitive legislation. Not only does Fortner under-examine the continuity of police brutality and black resistance against it but he also ignores the corruption of the city’s police department. Throughout 1971 and 1972, the Knapp Commission’s public hearings made Harlemites well aware of widespread police corruption. In this context, it is reasonable to question if the majority of black New Yorkers would entrust the police to fairly enforce laws that sentenced people to life without parole.
New York City’s white backlash mirrored similar conservative efforts happening nationwide. Angry white responses to the War on Poverty, civil disobedience, and race rebellions undergirded not only conservative’s “law and order” legislative agenda but also liberals, such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which set the stage for the carceral state before Rockefeller’s conservative shift.
Certainly, class and white ethnics’ values shaped the conservative turn, and Harlemites then and now loathed intra-racial crime, but racism birthed the post–civil rights carceral state. As a tale of origin, Fortner provides neither the data to argue that the black silent majority generated the punitive frame, nor the polling surveys to gauge the complexity of black public opinion during the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless, the Black Silent Majority begins the telling of an important story of black anticrime protest during the foundational years of mass incarceration, shedding light on the dilemma of intraracial crime that continues to plague black America.

Shannon King (The College of Wooster)

 

This book review also appears in print in American Studies 55.1  (2016) and is available via Project Muse

 

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