Murphy Institute Professor Michael Fortner’s hotly anticipated new book Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment gains yet more coverage with the latest edition of the New Yorker. In Kelefa Sanneh’s review, Body Count, the writer places Fortner’s book in conversation with the latest from Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) as well as Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow:
This summer, the Black Lives Matter movement got a literary manifesto, in the form of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” (Spiegel & Grau), a slender but deeply resonant book that made its début atop the Times best-seller list[…]
Four decades ago, a number of black leaders were talking in similarly urgent terms about the threats to the black body. The threats were, in the words of one activist, “cruel, inhuman, and ungodly”: black people faced the prospect not just of physical assault and murder but of “genocide”—the horror of slavery, reborn in a new guise. The activist who said this was Oberia D. Dempsey, a Baptist pastor in Harlem, who carried a loaded revolver, the better to defend himself and his community. Dempsey’s main foe was not the police and the prisons; it was drugs, and the criminal havoc wreaked by dealers and addicts.
Dempsey is the most vivid character in “Black Silent Majority” (Harvard), a provocative new history by Michael Javen Fortner, a professor of urban studies who wants to complicate our understanding of crime and punishment in black America. He points out that while African-Americans have long been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for committing crime, they have also, for just as long, been disproportionately victimized by it. His focus is New York in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, when crime rates shot up, creating a demand in African-American communities for more police officers, more arrests, more convictions, and longer prison sentences. The book begins near the end, on a January day in 1973, when Dempsey joined Governor Nelson Rockefeller at a press conference in support of what became known as the Rockefeller drug laws—a passel of anti-drug statutes that helped make New York a mass-incarceration pioneer, increasing the number of “friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations” that Coates writes about.
Like many scholars and activists, Fortner is profoundly disturbed by our modern system of criminal justice, calling mass incarceration “a glaring and dreadful stain on the fabric of American history.” But he thinks this history is incomplete if it ignores what he calls “black agency”: he wants us to see African-Americans not merely as victims of politics but as active participants in it, too. At a moment of growing concern about how our criminal-justice system harms African-Americans, Fortner seeks to show that African-American leaders, urged on by members of the community, helped create that system in the first place.
In this urgent moment — the moment of #blacklivesmatter, as well as the persistence of black deaths at the hands of police brutality, we must heed the lessons that our history teaches us:
As Fortner’s book makes clear, no political movement can afford to ignore the kind of cruel disorder that we euphemistically call common crime. A police force that kills black citizens is adding to America’s history of racial violence; so is a police force that fails to keep them safe. Alexander may be right that our criminal-justice regime is a new incarnation of the monstrous old Jim Crow system. But this should tell us something about the desperation of the many African-Americans who supported it anyway—convinced, not wholly unreasonably, that the alternative was even worse.
For the full article, visit the New Yorker.