Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner: Response by Ronald W. Bailey

Thursday, November 5, 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 is Professor Ronald W. Bailey's response given during the Roundtable.]

Black Silent Majority and U.S. Politics
Written by Ronald W. Bailey (Head, Department of African American Studies)

I want to join others in welcoming Professor Fortner to the University of Illinois.  And I want to thank Susan Koshy and the Unit for Criticism for their timeliness in organizing this panel discussion of Professor Fortner’s book, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment (Harvard UP, 2014). Coming in the middle of all of the issues facing U.S. society, and coming in the middle of an intensifying discussion of politics and policies as part of the run-up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, and in the middle of an escalating global crisis, this roundtable was a good call.  I had read a review of Professor Fortner's book a few days before the invitation to join the panel came and I used the invitation to make sure I would get the book and consider it more fully.

I also want to thank Professor Fortner for his work on producing an important book, and a provocative read! There are some ways in which it is deliberately provocative, probably reflecting his own choices and the choices of editors (as in the title). I came of age during some of that period, old enough to remember some key historical events. I  remember the 1954 Supreme Court Brown desegregation decision, if not the decision itself, the fact that it pushed White school boards to build new segregated schools in a hope to stem the tide of desegregation. I started the first grade in what was called an "Equalization" school (a reference to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of "separate but equal"), where, as in many of Georgia’s schools, the separation of races continued until 1970.

Professor Fortner has done us a service in pointing to important primary sources, some of which will be new to most people, and some of which have not been recently studied by others.  These sources create a more accessible and detailed record of the social conditions between the 1950s and 1970s, and show how the dialogue about these conditions especially within sectors of the black community shaped the development of public policies to address the drug crisis in urban communities.

This is not the place for a full book review so let me briefly comment on a few select points within the prescribed time constraints. If you have not read the book, here is the chapter outline and its six main chapters:

Introduction: "The Reign of Criminal Terror Must Be Stopped Now"
1. Rights and Wreckage in Postwar Harlem
2. Black Junkies, White Do-Gooders, and the Metcalf-Volker Act of 1962
3. Reverend Dempsey's Crusade and the Rise of Involuntary Commitment in 1966
4. Crime, Class, and Conflict in the Ghetto
5. King Heroin and the Development of the Drug Laws in 1973
6. Race, Place, and the Tumultuous 1960s and 1970s
Conclusion: "Liberal Sentiments to Conservative Acts"

Fortner's intent in the book is to draw attention to the role of what he calls “black agency” in the development of historical and contemporary public policy regarding crime and punishment, especially as it disproportionately impacted the Black community. As he states in his more recent piece in The New York Times, "The Real Roots of '70s Drug Laws" (9/28/2015):
Today's disastrously punitive criminal justice system is actually rooted in the postwar social and economic demise of urban black communities. It is, in part, the unintended consequence of African-Americans' own hard-fought battle against the crime and violence inside their own communities. To ignore that history is to disregard the agency of black people and minimize their grievances, and to risk making the same mistake again.
This has been the main bone of contention regarding Fortner’s analysis: to what extent does it reflect a “blame the victim” assignment of responsibility, while minimizing and letting broader social and political dynamics off the hook.  Let me address this question by making several points.

Income Inequality in Black and White
While there is considerable attention to class differences in Black Silent Majority, I don't see enough discussion of income inequality within the Black community.  This might help explain why we see a divergence of public opinion regarding crime: people with more money, including Black people, might be able to escape the ravages of crime and its impact, and thus may feel differently about crime based on their social class interests, and not be as vocal about crime as others.  The median income of Black households did not change much between 2011 (when it was 61% of what White households earned) and 1970 (when it was 60.9% of what White households earned).  But during this period there was significant change within the Black community that cannot be captured by statistics on median income.  As one analyst seeking to explain the clear mobility of one segment of the Black community during this time explained:
The answer to this question is largely that the distribution of income among Black households is very unequal, even more unequal than the distribution of income among White households. So many of the prominent Black people who appear to be doing so well are indeed doing well. At the other end are the Black households that are doing worse. Between 1970 and 2011, the upper 5% of Black households saw their average (mean) incomes rise from about $114,000 to about $215,000 (measured in 2011 dollars), while the incomes of Black households in the bottom 20% saw their average income fall from $6,465 to $6,379.
He continues: “Among White households, the pattern of change was similar but not quite so extreme. The average income of the top 5% of White households rose by 83% in this period, as compared to the 88% increase for the top Black households--though that elite White group was still taking in 50% per household more than their Black counterparts. The bottom 20% of White households saw a 13% increase per household in their inflation-adjusted incomes between 1970 and 2011.”

I want to emphasize this because of the formulation in Chapter 1, which points to the dramatic progress that Black people made in the decades of the 1950s and 1960:  “African Americans in NYC between 1950 and 1960 had not only won important civil rights; they had also begun to enjoy economic freedom" (p. 41).  Fortner lists the numbers on which this “freedom” is based: an increase in the number of accountants (220%), engineers (134%), teachers (125%), and doctors (56%).  On this basis he suggests that "civil rights and economic opportunity erected a ‘consumers republic’"—“an economy, culture, and politics built round the promises of mass consumption” in the ghetto (p. 43).

My main point here is that this is not the whole picture.  Income differences among sectors of the population are a manifestation of class conflict, but it is not the most decisive conflict that shapes the society. I say this because if this is not understood, we don’t end up with a view of Nelson Rockefeller and the Rockefeller drug laws that will allow intelligent action in the coming decades.

How Do We Understand Class?
Related to the above, and more important, is a broader discussion of how we understand “class.”  There are generally two approaches to class that are important to this discussion, especially since Professor Fortner is concerned about what he titles in Chapter 4, "Crime, Class, and Conflict in the Ghetto."  One approach to class is that it is determined by stratification-- either economic stratification (e.g., educational achievement, income) or social stratification (based on occupational status or other factors, including skin color within Black communities in an earlier period of U.S. history).  The second approach would be associated with Marxist political economy, based not on how much money you make but on whether or not your wealth—not just your wages—derives from your ownership of the means of producing wealth in the economy—factories, banks, etc.  This view would posit what classical political economists (e.g., Adam Smith, Karl Marx) labeled a "Labor Theory of Value" which focused on the labor of working people as the source of surplus over and beyond wages, and constitute funds that are distributed as profits, interest, rent, etc.

How do we understand Nelson Rockefeller, a man whose public policy interests figure so prominently in Black Silent Majority?  My introduction to Governor Nelson Rockefeller is perhaps different from that of many others.  As a kid growing up in rural Southeastern Georgia in the 1950s, I was a big fan of a Sunday news show, which I think was “Meet the Press,” and is now known as the longest-running television show in history.  It was brought to you by Exxon, though it might have been called Standard Oil in those days.  Its commercial stated: “If a map of the world was based on where the oil supply is located, it would look like this.”  In the image, the Middle East would get real large and the rest of the world would shrink.  “But if a map of the world was based on where the oil was used, it would look like this.”  In the image, the U.S and Western Europe would get real large and the rest of the world would shrink. “Exxon’s job is to get the oil from there to here!”  This was perhaps my first lesson in geo-politics and my first introduction to what I would later learn was called colonialism and imperialism.

It was later on that I learned that the Standard Oil/Exxon empire was owned by the Rockefeller family and made up one of the largest personal fortunes in the world.  And it was even later that I learned that Nelson Rockefeller was one of the guardians of Rockefeller political and economic interests and played a special role in state and national politics.  He was the 49th  Governor  of  New York (1959-1973); sought the  Republican  nomination for  President  in 1960, 1964, and  1968; and served as the 41st Vice President of the United  States  (1974-1977)  under  President  Gerald   Ford.  He chose not to run with Ford in 1976, in part because his views were rejected by the mass base of the party.  Rockefeller was described as "liberal, progressive, or moderate."  My point here is that Nelson Rockefeller was desperately interested in developing policies that would address the deepening economic, political, and social crisis that the U.S. was facing both here and abroad.  This is the context of his role in the development of policies regarding mass incarceration, on the one hand, and his attempt to find an approach that would address what many saw as the root cause of this crisis in broader social dynamics that included the need for rehabilitation of offenders.

I would summarize Fortner's discussion as seeking to understand the relationship between class position and economic conditions, ideological dynamics, and policy choices.

Fortner appears to conclude that it is the ideological dynamics that are central, and not the economic conditions of these communities, nor their struggle to shape and control public policies which are generally dominated by elites. And this control is not just what is battled out in state legislatures or at the local level.  It is also a function of who controls what makes it onto the agenda for public discussion and consideration.  And who has access to the funding which can be used to entice, if not bribe public officials, and even the general public to support one policy or another.  Any lingering doubt about how money can influence, indeed corrupt, the public policy process and politics should have been answered with the impact of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.  The concentration of wealth is increasing, and the impact of wealth in the public arena is escalating.

I think this approach to understanding the development of public policy has to be extended to how we understand and deploy history in our analyses.  Do our paradigms cover all of the key periods in our history, especially the periods of the slave(ry) trade, the rural period, and the urban period?  I worry about the approach in Fortner’s book because there has never been a period in which “Black agency” has not contested the powers that dominate the society.  There has never been a period where the public policy outcome did not respond in some way to this contestation—to oppose it, to support it, or even to co-opt it.  And despite this contestation or challenge, there are many examples where the final shape of the policy outcomes did not serve the best interest of the Black community.  Governor Rockefeller’s prison reforms are a good example.  We have not yet developed a theory of how to successfully combat co-optation and achieve the desired results which are the goals of Black agency.  I will leave it for others to complete the many examples from history.  My main point is not that Black agency has been lacking; it is more the fact that scholars and other analysts don’t study it closely enough and make it central in our efforts to convey the full picture.

Implications for Scholarship and Activism
In closing, let me suggest several points for further consideration in light of Professor Fortner's book:
  1. First, we need to pay careful attention to sharpening our understanding of the nature of capitalism and its impact on Black communities.  This is an interesting period when there is open discussion about whether capitalism can survive, with evidence from the Pew polls and other opinion surveys showing support for socialism, and a “democratic socialist” mounting a credible campaign for the U.S. presidency.  The mass media should not be the sole or the main source we use to develop our understanding of these issues, especially when history says we can expect the kind of red-baiting and accusations of un-American, foreign communism to escalate and shape the public discussion.  Especially important is Black intellectual history: what did scholars such as Ralph Bunche and others say about these concerns? It is essential that we revisit the long discussion in the Black community regarding “reform and revolution,” what I think Malcolm X was getting at when he titled one of his most important speeches as the choice between “the ballot and the bullet.”  What kinds of reforms are needed to address a whole range of issues, including crime, social decay, and economic underdevelopment? We need to be clearer on what it means when Bernie Sanders and others say that "people want a revolution!" What does this mean? How will it be brought about? How does it differ from what earlier movements and individuals attempted over the decades, including during the 1930s and the 1960s?
  2. How do we understand the “Linked Fate Lens" analysis which is central in Michael C. Dawson's Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African American Politics?  I  am concerned about the view in Black Silent Majority that people repudiated this approach, both then and now.  I  grew up in a family and in a supportive Black community in which people firmly believed, as many did in other communities, that Black people had a common destiny that required collective unity: let us all march and march on for each other until victory is won!  Politically, my generation tried to adhere to the "Unity without Uniformity" concept of Black community. We need to understand what this means in 2015 and beyond, and how it must be transformed to rally people to some degree of united action on a list of concerns that we can agree upon.  As I have tried to point out, it is the deepening of social class divisions within the Black community that has done as much to hamper this possibility as much as anything else.
Regardless of what our ideological preferences are, it is important to encourage deeper study of these issues and I applaud Professor Fortner for provoking more discussions of these questions.  What do we need to study?  What do we think we know?  What do we feel ought to be done? One of the criticisms of the conservatives on the “right” is that the “left” is so ideologically narrow that it does not want our students to understand and think critically about everything! And to some extent and for some that may be true.  But it is perhaps no more true for the left than for conservatives.

To have an accredited interdisciplinary curriculum, NCBS required three areas of scholarship as essential: (a) historical studies, (b) cultural studies and (c) social and behavioral studies. We have fared well with the first, reasonably well with the second, but today many Black Studies programs need to revisit the amount of attention we pay to the third: social and behavioral studies (including public policy). (See; Introduction to African American Studies at applies this framework).

The term "silent majority" has a particular and important history in political discussions over the last several decades.  Generally it referred to the large majority of citizens in the 1960s who were not a part of the very vocal protests over both domestic and international policies.  I wonder if the problem is with the “Black silent majority” as a group, or with the failure of generations of historians and social scientists over the past fifty years to be more attuned to the sentiments of the masses of Black people, which is a concern at the heart of Black Silent Majority. Recording this sentiment in great detail is a key contribution of the book.  It remains to be seen what we make of Professor Fortner’s argument, and how we deepen and probe its content and meaning, and what lessons we come away with, all especially important in this era of mass movement around Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter.


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