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When Black Lives Mattered

books and culture

When Black Lives Mattered

To other blacks, that is January 6, 2016
Arts and Culture

Photo by Shawn Walker

Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, by Michael Javen Fortner (Harvard University Press, 368 pp., $28.81)

Three decades ago, in response to a drug epidemic that was laying waste to urban minority communities from Los Angeles to Miami to New York, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which imposed much harsher penalties for crack-cocaine offenses than for crimes involving powder cocaine. For federal sentencing purposes, someone convicted of selling 50 grams of crack was subject to the same mandatory-minimum ten-year sentence as someone convicted of selling 5,000 grams of powder cocaine. This crack/powder disparity was increasingly attacked as racist—crack offenders tended to be black, while powder offenders tended to be white. Never mind that Representatives Charles Rangel and Major Owens, two black liberal Democrats from New York not known for their reluctance to play the race card, led the fight to impose the differential. Never mind that 11 of the 21 black lawmakers serving in Congress in 1986 supported the new law. And never mind that even those black congressmen who opposed it did not do so on grounds that it was racially unfair.

At the time, many black lawmakers and activists saw in crack cocaine a unique threat. The drug was considered more accessible, more addictive, and more closely associated with violent behavior than its powder form. Proponents of the “crackdown on crack” believed that lawful inner-city residents would be better off if crack offenders were locked up for longer periods of time. In other words, the motivating factor was safety, and the resulting racial disparities were incidental. Yet today’s critics of the 1986 law ignore or play down the role of black leaders in its passage and pretend that racial animus drove the effort.

According to Michael Javen Fortner’s urgent and extraordinary new book, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, this sort of politically expedient revisionism also shapes today’s related debate over the mass incarceration of black men. Fortner responds to best-selling authors like Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University, who has argued that a white backlash against the civil rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s led to the utilization of penal policy to restore the old Jim Crow social order of white supremacy. To Alexander and most of the liberal commentariat, mass incarceration has less to do with black criminality and more to do with historical white resistance to racial equality. In their view, prisons are tools of racial subordination. Under the auspices of a war on drugs, a racially biased criminal-justice system targets people simply for being black, not necessarily for breaking the law. Hence the tendency of leftists to obsess over the racial imbalance of the prison population while rarely discussing the racial imbalance among perpetrators of crime—as if the two are wholly unrelated.

Fortner, a political scientist at the City University of New York, challenges this wobbly liberal narrative by detailing the history of black activism that spurred Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the early 1970s to make New York the first state to mandate lengthy prison sentences for drug offenses. Today’s mass-incarceration phenomenon, the author argues, is an outgrowth of Rockefeller drug policies that enjoyed strong support from working- and middle-class blacks who were being terrorized by black criminals.

Crime rose rapidly nationwide in the 1960s and 1970s, and law-abiding blacks in places like New York bore the brunt of the consequences. Between 1960 and 1968, for instance, violent crime rose by 50 percent nationwide and by more than 450 percent in the Big Apple. Within New York City, some neighborhoods suffered a great deal more than others. “Homicide rates in white working-class precincts (Canarsie, Brooklyn), white middle-class areas (Bayside, Queens), and white upper-class precincts (Upper East Side) were dramatically lower than in precincts in minority communities,” writes Fortner. The homicide rate in one Harlem precinct “was over twenty-six times the rate in the Upper East Side, almost fifty times the rate of the most dangerous precinct in Bayside, and almost forty times the rate in Canarsie.” Between 1966 and 1976, blacks in New York City constituted half of all homicide victims—as well as about 50 percent of drug-related deaths—despite being only about one-fifth of the city’s population.

The book’s broader point—and Fortner makes it in a clear, fluid prose style that rarely lapses into academic jargon—is that a black silent majority at the time “was much more alarmed about drug addiction and violent crime than its white analogue” and ultimately motivated to take action. It was blacks who instigated the crackdown on black criminality, often over the opposition of white liberals and black political elites. “Many minority legislators voted against the drug laws, and survey evidence indicates that, driven by their own interests and ideologies, they were at odds with the communities they represented,” writes Fortner. Eventually, Rockefeller, “no pioneer of punishment,” began to recite the grievances of working- and middle-class blacks, to “appropriate their language and echo the discourse of their movement.”

In addition to assessing academic studies, Fortner has marshaled interviews with black activists, transcripts from legislative hearings, literature of the period, and numerous press reports to support his central claims. Readers may be especially intrigued by the punitive bluntness of the black press at the time. The Chicago Defender ran political cartoons in the early 1970s that portrayed black thugs menacing black neighborhoods and included captions like “Brother ’HOOD in Black Communities” and “Stop Black on Black Crime.” After a bank employee was shot dead in 1970, the Atlanta Daily World published an editorial with the headline CRIME MUST BE STOPPED. “It goes hard for the Christian heart to say this, but 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. Animals!” wrote the editors. “This bank, which has apparently become a target of hoodlums, and has young female tellers scared out of their wits, has employed numerous black people for years, and is making major contributions to the cause of advancement in Atlanta.”

Or consider this 1972 editorial on crime in the Washington Afro-American: “The exceedingly high incidence of housebreakings, pocketbook snatchings, robberies, shoplifting cases and shootings are not simply the outgrowth of bad social conditions,” said the editors. “It’s time to recognize that basic honesty has a lot to do with it. Honesty begins at home and makes little difference whether or not you are poor, unemployed and whatsoever.” The editors continued: “It’s also time we stop blaming everybody else for the criminal acts which occur in our neighborhoods. The victims of most of these criminal acts are black, and . . . the vast majority of these acts are caused by black people, and in the end the whole city . . . suffers.”

I don’t know Fortner’s personal politics, and his book is a work of scholarship, not a polemic. But in a moving preface, he does mention that his experience as a black youngster reared on Brooklyn’s mean streets during the height of the crack epidemic informs his perspective. “While the literature on mass incarceration has correctly highlighted racial discrimination within the criminal justice system, it has unnecessarily discounted the hurt and terror of those who clutch their billfolds as they sleep, of those who exit their apartments and leave their buildings with trepidation, and of those who have had to bury a son or daughter because of gang activity, the drug trade, or random violence.” Fortner wrote Black Silent Majority, he says, “to recover the voice of the ‘invisible black victim.’” His book accomplishes that and much more.

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