Michael Fortner is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about how African-American frustration with crime and disorder shaped the “tough-on- crime” politics of the 1970s, and how elites continue to misunderstand black attitudes toward crime and policing today.
Your 2015 book, Black Silent Majority, examines the origins of New York’s tough anti-drug laws and policies of the 1970s. What does the book show about those origins?
Black Silent Majority made a simple, and, as it turned out, controversial observation: working- and middle-class African-Americans in Harlem hated living amid crime, drug addiction and trafficking, and disorder. They turned to police and punitive policies to improve public safety. Their activism shaped Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller’s understanding of the problem and created an opportunity for him to brandish his own “law and order” bona fides for an increasingly conservative GOP. Black desperation and Rockefeller’s political interests converged, and draconian drug laws were the consequence of this convergence.
Do you see signs of a similar backlash against criminal-justice reform and policing reform brewing today?
There are eerie parallels. As crime rates rose in New York City in the 1960s, experts focused more on empirical questions and findings than on the experiences of African-Americans in high-crime neighborhoods. Liberal elites were enamored with black radicals and paid little attention to the pleas of local pastors, civic leaders, and residents.
Today, we see a similar gap between what many white experts and liberal elites want for African-Americans and what many black folks want for themselves. Last summer, after cities burned in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, elite media, attentive to the claims of Black Lives Matter and radical activists and academics, made it seem as if most African-Americans wanted to abolish the police. While devastated by instances of state violence, most blacks wanted police reform instead of the dismantling of policing agencies.
This witches’ brew of elite misperceptions may be crippling city governments from enacting a comprehensive public-safety strategy that could curb the immediate threat of shootings and homicides. If this persists, we will see more pushback against recent reforms—and the rise of more “law and order” politicians.
Your work suggests that elites, on both left and right, have fundamentally misread black views on crime and policing, and our political debates reflect that misreading. In your view, what do both sides get wrong?
Yes, elites on both the left and right tend to believe that the average African-American is a militant who hates the police. Conservatives frequently admonish African-Americans for ignoring so-called “black-on-black crime,” and liberals respond that the term is a racist trope deployed to divert attention away from state violence. Both claims fundamentally miss the indigenous construction of “crime” within black communities.
In 1979, Ebony, for years a mainstay in black discourse, published a special issue called “Black on Black Crime: the Cause, the Consequences, the Cures.” In the lead editorial, publisher John H. Johnson wrote that “It is our belief, and it is the basic premise of this issue, that Black on Black crime has reached a critical level that threatens our existence as a people. It is a threat to our youths, to our women, to our senior citizens, to our institutions, to our values.” He continued: “And although we are not responsible for the external factors that systematically create breeding grounds for social disorder, we cannot avoid the internal responsibility of doing everything we can to solve a problem that is rending the fabric of our lives.” Then he lists “clear and dangerous” “facts,” the first being: “Homicide is a major cause of death among young Black males, and most of these murder victims are killed, not by racists or members of the Ku Klux Klan, but by other young Black males.”
Read 40 years later, Johnson’s powerful essay and that whole special issue of Ebony make a sharp contrast with today’s elite discussions on the left and right, which completely miss the internal contours of the debate over crime and punishment that black communities have been having for decades.
Are you working on a new book on this topic?
My next book studies the rise and fall of the New Deal coalition in New York City. Though it is not directly focused on crime, that issue is a critical part of the story. Analysts on the left and right have attributed liberalism’s post-1960s decline to “identity politics.” Articulating the view from the right, Fred Siegel argues that the decline of New Deal liberalism manifested itself most clearly in a “riot ideology”—“the assumption that the violence of the sixties riots and their criminal aftermath were both justified and, to a considerable extent, functional in rectifying the sins of racism.” Writing from the left, Barnard College sociology professor Jonathan Rieder argues that, for whites, liberalism increasingly meant “taking the side of blacks, no matter what; dismissing middle-class plaints as racism; handcuffing the police; transferring resources and sympathy from a vulnerable middle class to minorities; rationalizing rioting and dependency and other moral afflictions as ‘caused’ by the environment or the justifiable response to oppression.”
My book argues that conservatives and liberals accurately describe how white and black elites framed the “urban crisis” but fail to capture the nuances of white and black opinions and aspirations. Drawing on underutilized surveys, I show that the decline of the New Deal coalition in New York City was the result of elite interests and ideas rather than the popular preferences of city residents. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the issue of crime, where blacks and whites shared a desire for greater public safety and support for policing but elites, on the left and the right, decided to racialize the issue. History may be repeating itself.
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