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The Forgotten History Of ‘The Black Silent Majority’


At a 1973 bill-signing session, the pistol-packing Reverend Oberia Dempsey of Upper Park Avenue Church in Harlem praised Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for heeding the calls of his community to get rid of drugs. The “Rockefeller drug laws” mandated life imprisonment for drug dealers.

Acknowledging that addicts needed treatment, Dempsey asserted, “We are not going to stand any longer and see decent citizens brutalized or subjected to punishment because someone is out there sick.” He added sarcastically, “And I’m sorry for the bleeding hearts, I’m sorry for all of the people who are over-sympathetic with criminals and under-sympathetic with decent citizens.”

Only one African-American legislator, Sen. Vander Beatty, voted for the legislation, although it fell short of his aim: capital punishment for drug dealers. But Dempsey was joined by the “black silent majority,” working- and middle-class citizens who saw their once-vibrant cultural center terrorized by drug pushers. Two hundred Harlemites took up firearms with Dempsey and patrolled their streets, tracking and reporting drug pushers to the police in “Operation Confiscation” and “Operation Interruption.” They also escorted women to church and to the market.

Such extraordinary stories are told in City University of New York sociologist Michael Javen Fortner’s “Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment” (Harvard University Press, 2015). Fortner uses newspaper archives, meeting minutes, polls, surveys, oral histories, interviews, legislative hearing records, and even fiction and drama to piece together a compelling narrative about a community fighting for its life. Except for the occasional lapse into academic jargon (“the ebb of Fordism,” for example), this is fascinating reading. It is changing the conversation about mandatory minimum drug laws.

A Surge of Interest in Controversial Black History

The book began receiving attention in advance of its release in September, with the Chronicle of Higher Education devoting a long feature article to it in August, which led to an interview later in the month on radio station WIND, in Chicago, then one on WNYC in September.

It pushes against the narrative about the ‘new Jim Crow,’ drug laws that have led to the disproportionate rate of African-American incarceration.

A first book, it garnered immediate attention from quarters that would make any author envious, including The New York Times, New Yorker, New York Magazine, Daily Beast, and Salon. A couple weeks after its release, Fortner wrote an op-ed for the The New York Times, addressing police shootings of black men that had spurred protests and sometimes riots. In January, he spoke at the Manhattan Institute. The New York Academy of History gave him the award for the best book of 2015.

The pace is continuing, with invited appearances coming up at places as varied as the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and the African American Studies Department at Columbia University. In a recent interview, Fortner told me happily, “My dance card is full.”

Reasons behind the attention include the fact that the book features subject matter that has been univocally promoted in the academy. It pushes against the narrative about the “new Jim Crow,” drug laws that have led to the disproportionate rate of African-American incarceration (six times that of whites). The theory holds that a white backlash against civil rights gains led to such discriminatory laws.

To the contrary, Fortner shows that the “black silent majority” pushed back against “the criminologies of the welfare state espoused by the white middle-class reformers who had monopolized the debate over drug addiction and crime during the 1950s and early 1960s.” The 1973 Rockefeller drug laws repudiated the liberal 1962 Metcalf-Volker Act.

African-Americans Oppose Their So-Called Advocates

The beleaguered residents of Harlem received little help from the new class of black politicians and activists, overwhelmingly Democrats. A. Philip Randolph’s Emergency Committee for Unity and Social and Economic Problems featured stars like Percy Sutton, Malcolm X, and Bayard Rustin; they considered drug users casualties of racism and decried police brutality and racial attitudes. The committee formed in 1961 but was short-lived, as members switched their attention to the national civil rights movement, specifically the 1963 March on Washington.

The silent majority took advantage of the expanded opportunities in entrepreneurship, public sector jobs, white-collar jobs, and political office that came about between 1940 and 1960.

Representatives like Sutton expressed ideas in “white-dominated public spaces” that contradicted pleas they heard from constituents, those who felt that the “‘wounds of centuries’ had been partially treated and partially healed by their industry and probity.” The black community suffered from the loss of labor-intensive work and continued residential segregation and unscrupulous landlords as the 1960s approached; but the silent majority took advantage of the expanded opportunities in entrepreneurship, public sector jobs, white-collar jobs, and political office that came about between 1940 and 1960.

Fortner tells their stories with empathy, if not approval, claiming they were “motivated by fear and advised by indigenous values.” He leaves the reader to agree or disagree with their blaming “the community’s downfall on individual behavior, the self-indulgent, irresponsible actions of the disadvantaged, rather than racial or economic inequality.” He offers no solutions but evidence to peel away layers of ideology. Dispelling the dominant belief that the majority of blacks approved of urban riots, militancy, and black nationalism, he cites poll after poll showing disapproval of such figures as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, and approval of the NAACP’s moderate tactics.

Doubly Victimized, By Criminals and Their Champions

He also presents surveys that contradict assumptions about a racist white silent majority. One in 1970 showed that among the 63 percent of respondents who described themselves as the “silent majority” 22 percent thought “Negroes” were treated unfairly, as opposed to only 12 percent who thought it was “working men” or “the lower middle class.” Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be worried about drug use. White Catholics and police officers were more concerned about student protests than black crime. Police found it harder to take the “scions of the upper middle class in the best universities” hurling bricks and bags of feces and denunciations as “pigs” than ghetto inhabitants’ usual crimes.

White Catholics and police officers were more concerned about student protests than black crime.

All this happened before Fortner was born in 1980, but he suffered the consequences. When he was only two years old, one of Fortner’s older brothers was stabbed with an ice pick at a party. Their father, a machinist, cradled his dying son in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The brother’s name, Dexter, was never spoken again, and when young Michael tried to surprise his mother by taking photographs of Dexter out of the closet and putting them on the walls, they were quietly taken down. (Another of his three brothers is imprisoned.)

Mark Parry visited Fortner’s old Brownsville neighborhood, where Fortner grew up with the “’constant and subtle terror’” of drug dealers loitering in front of his housing project, addicts knocking on the apartment door peddling stolen goods, and gunshots.

Fortner escaped. He received scholarship money to attend boarding school, then earned a PhD from Harvard University. As he explained to me, he set aside the typical project of revising his dissertation (a comparison of racial and class politics in New York and London) into his first book. He turned to the topic that was “calling” him.

Opposition to Alternative Explanations

He had read Michelle Alexander’s influential “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (The New Press, 2010) and was vexed by the discounting of “black agency.” Alexander blamed a white backlash, but Fortner wondered, “’Where are the black folks in this story?’”

Some feared what they believed to be his politics—as a ‘right-wing black conservative.’

Parry notes that Fortner’s early research published as articles had already “met resistance from critics who felt he was trying to justify mass incarceration, which he loathes.” Parry’s article, however, featured some of Fortner’s critics. Yale law professor James Forman Jr. praised the book for giving agency to the black community, but said Fortner overstated his claims. University of Michigan history professor Heather Ann Thompson didn’t dispute Fortner’s research, but insisted that he did not adequately capture the nuances.

Rutgers history professor Donna Murch maintained that blacks had little power; she curiously pointed out that the Voting Rights Act did not pass until 1965 (eight years before the passage of the Rockefeller laws). Murch expanded her criticisms of what she called Fortner’s “revisionist project” in the October 16 Boston Review. Fortner replied in an article of nearly equal length, offering his definitive response.

Fortner told me Chronicle and New York Times reporters sought out professors who “hold and protect racial arguments most fiercely” and are most devoted to a “radical vision of mass incarceration.” As a result, they are closed to “alternative interpretations and unintended consequences, unexpected things.” Some feared what they believed to be his politics—as a “right-wing black conservative.”

An Appreciation for Nuance

This made it difficult for them to see the nuances in the book, including points about what Fortner calls “white liberal privilege.” Such privilege allows liberals “to evade all the problems of street crime, of heroin addiction. . . .” He told me, “I don’t necessarily applaud what the people in the book do but I try to tell their story. For me their story is about dealing with one of the most difficult challenges one could face and not having options. It’s important to understand where the politics are coming from, to understand the anger and the pain.”

Let’s hope that this points to a turnaround in scholarship, an openness to the ‘unexpected consequences’ that evidence brings.

Fortner says the positive response has far outweighed the negative. Jason Riley, writing in City Journal, called the book “urgent and extraordinary.” Kudos also comes from liberal quarters. As Fortner notes, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson praised it in print and in talks. Johns Hopkins political scientist Lester Spence listed Fortner’s book in his top five shortlist of 2015 books, alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” a collection of “science fiction stories from social justice movements” titled “Octavia’s Brood,” and Jabari Asim’s “Only the Strong.” Columbia University professor John McWhorter called it “the most important black book of 2015” on bloggingheads tv’s “Glenn Show.” It made the editor’s choice in the New York Times Book Review.

Such bipartisan appreciation is a positive sign. Let’s hope that this points to a turnaround in scholarship, an openness to the “unexpected consequences” that evidence brings. I am looking forward to reading Fortner’s next book, about the crack epidemic of the 1980s.