Michael Javen Fortner, “Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment” (2015) – This is an interesting and frustrating book, seemingly more based on a gap than on a finding. It brings home a lot of uncomfortable realities that our political habits — especially the widespread habit, on the left, center, and right, of assuming the “real” people are with them implicitly — evade. But it does not do what it’s author sets out to do.
Who is responsible for mass incarceration? Even conservatives increasingly agree that our justice system is a shambles and a shame. Most historians and social scientists who write about mass incarceration seem to agree that white reaction is at fault- presented with the upheavals of the black freedom movement and other social changes (including a rising crime rate), conservative politicians promised white voters they would restore control (and discipline “those people”) with massive increases in police, prisons, and punishment in general. There seems to be more debate about whether this truly constitutes a continuation of Jim Crow, ala popular political writer Michelle Alexander, or not, than whether that story is accurate.
Political scientist Michael Javen Fortner sets out to do something between complicate and overthrow that story. He does this in the name of “restoring agency” to working- and middle-class black people who called for more policing and harsher penalties for crimes committed in their neighborhoods. Fortner’s case study is the politics of crime and punishment in postwar New York City. A number of black civic leaders in the city, mostly ministers, backed Governor Nelson Rockefeller as he executed a “heel turn” of sorts- liberal Republican turned architect of some of the most repressive, brutal drug laws in the country, passed in 1973.
The impulse here is clear: disillusion liberals and radicals (implicitly white, as they seem to always be in this book) who might be reading the book from their cherished notions of an authentic black working-class subject who backs their efforts and implicitly agrees with them about stuff. Black people get upset about crime, Fortner points out, experience more of it than white people generally do, and turn to the conventional remedies — police and prisons — for relief. Fortner doesn’t defend the carceral state but insists denying black involvement in it denies black agency and distorts the tasks involved in repairing the situation.
The problem here is that notions of “real” people following one or another politics can cut a lot of different ways. Speaking as a socialist organizer, I can tell you, for every collegiate lefty who fondly believes in a multiethnic queer working class just champing st the bit to fight cops and read Lenin under their leadership, there’s an (equally overeducated, usually) twitter-bound lefty who sincerely believes there’s a blue-collar, implicitly white, mass of ex-factory workers who would become socialists if only they didn’t have to think about they/them pronouns, and who would provide them with the masculine approval they failed to secure from their fathers. This shit is just endemic.
Fortner doesn’t avoid it. He doesn’t really prove that the black masses he projects onto think or thought as he claims they did (and, implicitly, do). It’s hard to really prove these things, generally- one of the pitfalls of people-based politics. Fortner proves that Harlemites interviewed by magazines at the time were upset about crime and mad at criminals. He also shows that some ministers and local politicos in Harlem were willing to go along with a powerful politician, Nelson Rockefeller, who had to seem tough on crime in order to compete with up-and-coming right-wingers in the Republican Party like Ronald Reagan (and who didn’t give a shit about black lives). There’s some interesting stuff here about how black people saw black criminals as threatening the gains of the WWII and civil rights periods that some black Harlemites saw. How representative were such people of black opinion? Whose to say? No one, in the end. Fortner further writes that people who opposed ramping up police power, like “white liberals” and black radicals like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, didn’t represent many people in Harlem. That, he doesn’t prove. At the end of the day, the assertions aren’t all that different from those of the abolitionists at whom he wags his finger.
Well… what did the people of Harlem believe or want at the time? It’s hard to say. There were a lot of them, it was a while ago now, and, this seems important but hard to actualize, it seems likely that most people of all classes and races don’t have especially coherent politics. That doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or stupid or don’t know their interests, though that describes plenty of people (a progressively lower number for each adjective, in my opinion). It just means they don’t think that much about or that rigorously about politics. This makes sense, given how politics usually is in most places- a plaything of the elite where they figure out how to screw over everyone else, with a few do-gooders on the margins trying to change things and generally failing in embarrassing fashion.
Split the difference- we, those of us who organize, can’t just fit our politics to what we think “the people” want. There’s no real way to know, and if there was, we shouldn’t do that anyway, because popular approval doesn’t make something right. We should try to convince people of what we believe (and listen to others when they have ideas that are worth having). But we also have to listen. Listening isn’t the same thing as agreeing. But people — across the political spectrum — become so enamored with their picture of a mass that agrees with them, and with a wicked minority that doesn’t, that it becomes tempting to cast potential members of that mass who disagree on some things into the wicked minority, secure in the “knowledge” that the “real people” are with you on what might actually be a fairly extended limb.
Especially with a problem like crime, it’s easy for leftists to handwave it when conservatives get as febrile as they do about the issue, and when crime rates have been low for a while. It’s easy to mock rich suburban white people terrified that MS-13 is going to steal their aboveground pool. But criminal violence and damage does happen, it disproportionately affects poor people and people of color, and whether the crime rate is objectively going up or down doesn’t make people whose lives are hurt by crime feel better about it. That doesn’t mean we should uphold the carceral state, which just brings more violence to these communities. It means we’d better be ready to take the problems involved seriously and be goddamned good and ready to implement our better solutions when we have the chance. Fortner probably would have been better off writing about that than this, but it’s a good reminder in any event. ***