Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner; Response by Estibalitz Ezkerra Vegas

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

posted under by Ted
[On October 19, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted an Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner (CUNY); Ronald Bailey (African American Studies) and Margareth Etienne (College of Law) responded. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student Estibalitz Ezkerra Vegas.]

Giving Voice to the Silent Majority and Its Limits
Written by Estibalitz Ezkerra Vegas (Comparative & World Literature)

Michael Javen Fortner’s Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment (Harvard UP, 2015) analyzes the involvement of Harlem’s black working- and middle-class community in shaping Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s drug laws in the 1970s. Despite the book’s title, the majority of black men and women were not silent at that time, though their testimony hasn’t been taken into account up to this point. Fortner’s provocative argument has generated vigorous debate  some of  it critical and “unfounded,” according to the author. He began his presentation at the Author’s Roundtable, organized by the Unit for Criticism, by explaining the context from which the book emerged in order to clarify some  aspects of the argument.

Fortner explained that there is a personal dimension to the book, as one of his brothers was stabbed to death when he was young and another brother is in prison. He and his family are victims of crime and of the criminal justice system. The second aspect that pushed him to write about the context from which the Rockefeller Drug Laws emerged was the contrast between the memories of his parents’ more positive image of the former governor and the governor's current reputation as the infamous founder of mass incarceration. At home Rockefeller was usually referred to as a noble man, and Fortner was curious about where this sentiment came from. He was also prompted to write the book because of the uncritical reactions of some of his friends during the confrontations between the Black Lives Matter protesters and the police after various episodes of police brutality. To Fortner’s surprise, one of them posted on social media in response to recent events in Chicago that “it’s time to bring in the National Guard.” The recourse to aggressive policing to resolve a crisis, particularly from individuals who espouse radical critiques of police brutality, struck him as contradictory and telling. He also felt compelled to write because of the partial picture of the history of the drug laws provided by widely publicized publications such as The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by Michelle Alexander. Alexander does not take into account the voices and stories of those who have mobilized against crime in the black community. For that same reason, whereas he agrees with Alexander that the system of mass incarceration has created and perpetuated an incarcerated class, he finds the book’s functionalist theory of the durability of white supremacy faulty.

Thus, Black Silent Majority looks at 1948-1973 New York in an attempt to elucidate what the Black population thought about crime and violence, why and how they mobilized against it. At that time there was a robust anti-crime movement, predominantly middle-class, that mobilized on behalf of punitive policies: life without parole, the death penalty, and more police presence in the streets. While they acknowledged structural causes for crime, they saw the need for greater security and order to deal with the havoc drugs had wreaked on their neighborhoods.

Fortner was careful to note that these anti-crime movements need to be understood vis-à-vis the conjuncture of the political situation: how the suffering of black people in Harlem was used and exploited for political purposes by the Governor’s campaign, and the relation between the responses of working- and middle-class blacks and the development of institutions at this particular time.

Ron Bailey (African American Studies) and Margareth Etienne (College of Law), the two respondents in the Author’s Roundtable the Unit for Criticism hosted on October 19, concurred that Fortner’s Black Silent Majority is a “provocative” book that has ignited conversations inside and outside the academy. Bailey praised the “archaeological work” behind the making of Black Silent Majority which points to the shortcomings of African American Studies scholarship these days. Bailey argued that recently the field has tended to offer students mostly humanities-oriented approaches to the African American experience, whereas sociological approaches that made Kenneth B. Clark’s Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (1989) such an important contribution to the field have been largely set aside. However, he argued that Fortner’s book has limits regarding how African American communities at that time (between the 1950s and the 1970s) are represented. 

According to Bailey, the book doesn’t put enough emphasis on income inequality inside these communities, something he considered key in shaping their interests. By the same token it would be a mistake to think that Rockefeller’s ego influenced his political maneuvers and policy-making. Rather, both should be understood from a Marxist perspective: Rockefeller was a member of the capitalist elite, those who own the means of production, and he acted accordingly. “It is not a mystery,” Bailey continued, “that the African American middle class wanted to get rid of crime. How we interpret this attitude in the midst of policy making and the impact of capitalism is what matters.”

Etienne, on the other hand, focused on the debate on sentencing and the reality of the constrained choices facing the black community in Harlem. She said that we need to understand Harlem at that time, how from being a Mecca for the African American diaspora, “the closest we can get to the capital of Black America,” it turned into an unsafe area from the 1950s to the 1970s, plagued by drugs, crime, and poverty. The African American community was afraid of losing what they had and their desperation was political and personal, with each factor influencing the other. The choice they made in supporting punitive laws grew out of that desperation and should be understood in the context of their limited and constrained choices. Etienne explained that we tend to think about criminal justice and its outcomes as a choice between rehabilitation and punishment. However, this dichotomy of choice is not necessarily applicable to the situation the black community found itself in at that time. Unlike alcoholism or other social ills, drugs were a new threat: “the impact of dope, heroin, cocaine, was not a problem they had encountered and dealt with before.” The spread of drugs coincided with an era of prison reform in the country that promoted rehabilitation, “but by the 1970s the notion of rehabilitation as a choice evaporated as a political and also a social matter.” Thus, according to Etienne, the choices for the Black “silent majority” were already “cut short.”

In response to his respondents’ comments, Fortner said that his book traces how Rockefeller’s policies changed over time based on his shifting political interests, and how crime created a context that he exploited for political purposes. The goal of the book is to showcase voices that we haven’t encountered yet when analyzing the factors that contributed to the creation of the current prison system. “It is a book on black agency,” he emphasized. Yet, as Etienne pointed out, that’s a tricky business. On the one hand, claiming that the “Black silent majority” was not silent but spoke loud at that time suggests that African Americans had a means to contribute to and participate in policy making; yet it is clear that didn’t happen. On the other hand, to argue that they just happened to be there and that the dominant political forces co-opted their voices is to deny their agency. Thus, according to Etienne, it all ties back to whether or not African American experiences are representative of and represented in legal discourse. 

Bailey shared his concerns about whether the book offers a fair portrayal of the “thickness of the moment,” with so many movements and protests happening in other parts of the country that did not necessarily echo the sentiments of the community represented in Black Silent Majority. James Kilgore added that many things were going on in those days, and that too much emphasis on one group could offer a distorted picture of the struggles back then. A member of the audience pointed out the risks of misappropriating and misinterpreting the thickness of the affect evinced by the people represented in Fortner’s book, who were enduring very difficult circumstances. Emotionally charged statements such as “Kill the Pushers,” a response attributed to the mother of a teenager who died of a drug overdose, need to be read carefully as evidence. Bailey added that what people thought they were doing is also crucial in understanding the situation and its outcomes.

Towards the end of the evening Kilgore asked Fortner what lessons are to be learned for Black Lives Matter. Fortner responded that traditional black middle class leadership should not be trusted as they have their own economic interests that do not necessarily converge with anti-racism. He encouraged the movement to constitute a new leadership and to seek alliances with white liberals and other groups who share the same concerns. Bailey added that it shouldn’t be an “either / or” proposition. He mentioned a banner with the slogan “Blue Lives Matter” that he encountered during a visit to Georgia, and pointed out how misleading it is to think the choice is between black people’s or police officers’ lives. He advocated for reaching out to the “good people,” including cops, who are aware of the problems effecting the country in general and the African American population in particular.

I share some of the concerns both respondents and some of the members of the audience mentioned throughout the evening with regards to Fortner’s book. However, although the problems of the prison system in the US were acknowledged and its sources were more or less established, I felt that the structures that make larger and smaller scale, intra- and trans-national punitive and violent mechanisms possible were left unquestioned. Maximum security prisons, the militarization of the police, the high esteem many people have for the army, the policing and surveillance of citizens by state agencies but also by citizens themselves, are all a reflection of a country obsessed with security. A security, we are told, whose sole guarantor is the state, and the police the body to protect and enforce it, even against the very citizens the state is supposed to protect in the first place. (I find quite amusing the liberal dream that the police can be rehabilitated, but I’m aware of its roots and routes.) Let us be clear—violence is constitutive to the state, and the state keeps its business running through the “legal” use of violence in its varied manifestations. Thus, it is not enough to raise our concerns against the implications of this or that law. We need to understand the histories of violence in this country, and their afterlives in all their current ramifications and implications. My students at Danville Correctional Center, where I teach as part of the Education Justice Project, are pretty much aware of it. 


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