Michael Javen Fortner’s “Black Silent Majority”

Michael Javen Fortner’s “Black Silent Majority” is an effort to outline and detail a relationship between New York’s Black middle and working class and New York’s carceral state and penology. In it, he establishes an argument that much of our nation’s system of crime punishment was borne out of Rockefeller’s Drug Laws. Drug laws midwived by Black citizens concerned with growing heroin addicts, gang activity, drug peddlers, and criminality in their communities in general, he reasons.

 

In his book’s introduction, he describes US Black leaders involvement with Rockefeller to establish these laws. This scene he illustrates takes place around 1973. I quote:

 

Some were suspicious at the sight of African American leaders–civil rights activists and social reformers–promoting the patrician governor’s proposal to accelerate the imprisonment of young black males and expand a police state in Harlem. Black state senator Sidney Von Luther protested, “When he rounded up some ministers and other leaders to support him, he created a stacked deck; many of those people have gotten money from the Governor to run the very drug programs that have failed to solve the problem.” Woodrow Lewis, a black assemblyman from Brooklyn, lamented that Rockefeller had divided the black community by using these pastors as “[p]uppets and instruments in the creation of hysteria.” Lewis charged that the governor never consulted leaders who accurately reflected the desires of the city’s African American community. Even Joseph Persico, a Rockefeller aide and speechwriter, believed, at one point, that the governor had expertly manipulated some black ministers to engineer the passage of his drug program. In the proposal for his biography of Rockefeller, Persico wrote that the wily governor had called “in the chits” of Harlem pastors “whose churches had benefited from Rockefeller family bounty.”

“Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws And The Politics Of Punishment”, Michael Javen Fortner, pg. 5

 

I am publicly one of those writers and thinkers that consider Black-on-Black crime a reality. That stated, I could not help but think of US Black Trump supporters and their congregations claiming to have top gang thugs of Chicago’s ear. Somethings never change, I suppose. Although, I do believe this scene painted for us here has a couple differing impetus. In today’s Mega Church, “Passing checks like Soros”, ambitious activist climate, it can be difficult to determine when an act is solely driven by profit motivations or from socio-political agenda. And as Fortner argues, it can at times be impossible in some minds to do one without doing that other.

 

What Fortner also wishes to highlight is that timing of this policy change. According to his research, US Black leaders of that area had years of advocating for stronger laws and punishments for Blacks committing crimes, especially drug dealing, in Black communities. He notes:

 

In 1968, Roy Wilkins, the legendary leader of the NAACP, witnessed the toll crime was taking on African Americans and heralded the growing movement against it…By 1974…Roy Wood, a National Black Network radio commentator, urged a united effort in combating crime, saying,”I think when the criminal element of our communities becomes so bad and brazen that Black people are no longer safe on the streets…it is time to rally decent, self-respecting Black people together for nationwide action against Black on Black crime.”

In 1967, an African American business owner in Baltimore opined,”It’s been said that poverty is the cause [of crime], but many of us come from the ghetto, from poor homes and have not turned to crime.”

pg 8-9

 

I can be conflicted in discussions such as these. Contradictions will abound. There is a line where I cannot possibly support laws that are excruciatingly biased and teleologically determined to socio-economically deprive US Blacks of social mobility. There is a side of me that will always be dedicated to a religion of “Phukkk Them Police”. Also, there is a side of me that locks all his doors at night as a defense mechanism for his wife and child not to be harmed by other US Blacks. There is a side of me that installs alarms in his house located in a predominantly Black Baltimore neighborhood. I do exist at an interesting intersection of disenfranchisement and upwardly mobile professional Black middle-class existence. I have to weigh every case differently. Including my own on some days.

 

Fortner weaves his study around these two polar sets of US Black social being. In one camp he admits that he speaks and represents a silent minority of Middle and Working class Blacks that seldom are represented in discussions of this nature. He also does a lengthy job of explaining how USA maintains unjust strata of incarcerated US Blacks. Continuing his discussion in this vein, Fortner explicates:

 

A curious thing happened after the Civil Rights Movement ended. Many African Americans, who had just won new freedoms, found themselves captured once more after the 1970s. Numerous young black men were caught in the throes of the modern carceral state, a term used by scholars to describe the set of organizations and capacities employed by the government to administer its monopoly on violence and maintain order within its borders.

First, mandatory-minimum drug sentences are the keystone of the modern carceral state: they allow for the policing and prosecution of relatively minor crimes and guarantee lengthy sentences for individuals convicted of these offenses, and both factors populate and propel the growth of prisons.

 

 

…New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, passed in 1973, represented a critical juncture in the historical development of the carceral state. They were the first of their kind, and, in the decade following their passage, forty-eight states enacted their own antidrug laws with mandatory-minimum sentences, instigating the rapid rise in the number of individuals imprisoned in state institutions before 1986.

pg 10-11

 

Fortner works diligently within these pages to address scholarship along this topic’s trajectory without becoming a fanboy for any particular set of hypotheses and analysis. He discusses Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” and without being caustic, he gently explains her shortcomings. He invites us to explore various interpretations of literature within this discourse.

 

Other accounts connect the rise of the carceral state to the ascendance of neoliberalism. The shift from the industrial society of the “Fordist-Keynesian order” to the “information society” of neoliberalism displaced American workers, particularly urban African Americans. A confluence of events closed off the labor market to the urban black poor: technological advances decreased the number of labor-intensive jobs, globalization replaced unionized labor in the United States with low-cost workers in other countries, and the information-based service-sector economy required higher educational levels and skills.

pg 13

 

I am not a fan of Fortner’s attempts to “tell it like it is”, I am pleased with his ability to frame US Black agency in a way that does not overlook structural accountability. He exemplifies this expertly in this following passage:

 

To be clear, acknowledging black agency in a process does not mean assuming blacks had total control of its outcome. Instead, it means systematically studying the role that black politics played in the formation of crime policies. It also means deconstructing the very notion of “black interests” and allowing for the possibility of class conflict. Scholars have been slow to recognize forms fo black class conflict in the post-civil rights period. Michael C. Dawson, for instance, concedes the increasing significance of class in the life chances of African Americans but insists that “systematic manifestations of these class divisions in the political arena have been difficult to find.” Dawson offers the theory of “linked fate” to explain this paradox, arguing that, because middle-class African Americans and the black poor share a history of racial discrimination, the black middle-class relies on their racial identity rather than class status to understand their individual self-interests. “Linked fate,” however, ignores the fact that values operate as interpretative frames that individuals use to understand their material interests and their relationship and obligation to others. Within urban communities across the United States, working- and middle-class African Americans differentiate between “us” and “them”, between “decent families” and “street families.” And “decent families” do not believe that their fate is linked with the fate of “street families.” In fact, they are committed to foregoing a future that they trust will be different from and brighter than the one “street families” will choose.

pg 14

 

And probably vice versa.

 

Sure, this phrase “street family” is a bit harsh. This entire dichotomy of “street family” versus “decent family” does not properly handle those many various mixtures of both. But it does present a well enough starting line. People with criminalized lifestyles have their own sets of values and principles. Often, when a conflict of interest presents itself among members of same race, racial solidarity lacks same cohesion as more immediate identifying factors.

 

I have to note here, intraracial conflicts in US Black communities, like intraracial conflicts in most other communities, are not simply along class lines. Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, and other various high profile Black areas are not seeped in blood because poor Blacks are shooting at upwardly mobile Blacks. Further, “upwardly mobile” might need more elaboration. A person selling drugs is also upwardly mobile, and they do not have to be “indecent” about their decorum. Even under definitions that might evolve under “whyte gaze”. Class alienation is often more specific in its exclusion, and factors like family, school pedigree, and social interests should be measured.

 

Fortner does offer us his take on why his “Black middle class” tends to waiver along moral lines with regards to racial solidarity:

 

Black Silent Majority argues that political aims of black middle-class morality vary according to the nature of threats to their social position. At the turn of the twentieth century, entrenched racism engendered the “politics of respectability,” which emphasized “reform of individual behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations.” Fearful of the “white gaze,” “righteous” middle-class African Americans sought to curtail behaviors among the poor that would perpetuate stereotypes and undercut middle-class claims of equality

pg 15

 

As stated, I think Fortner definitely paints a vivid image of events. I have my concerns regarding his portrait of class antagonisms as they seem too simplified. Even this I can stomach, however, given that level of research and a seeming desire to “tell it like it is”.

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