Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner: Response by Margareth Etienne

Thursday, December 10, 2015

posted under by Ted
Comments on Black Silent Majority: Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment by Michael Javen Fortner
Written by Margareth Etienne
Professor of Law and Nancy Snowden Research Scholar

Dr. Fortner’s book, Black Silent Majority, has ignited critical conversations in the academy and in public discourse.  The conversations aptly range from the politics of respectability within the black community (and who polices it) to the very notion of privilege and representative democracy within the black community (and who speaks for whom) — see the book's reviews from The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education for example. What interests me most as a Criminal Law scholar, and the subject to which I will limit my brief comments, is the reason the (mostly) privileged group of black New Yorkers (preachers, politicians, middle and working class folk, the so-called “talented tenth,” and others) — the “silent majority” — became harbingers to the institution of draconian drug sentences.

To understand the ramifications of his argument, we must remember the cultural vibrancy of New York between 1920 and 1950. This was a period in which Harlem became a mecca of artistic, cultural and intellectual engagement.  This was the time of Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, and Josephine Baker.  This renaissance was seeded by the great migration — the movement of more than 6 million people to the North from the South in Harlem. Harlem, in this time, was as close to a capital of Black America as there could be.  Let’s pause for a thought experiment:  if this Harlem was on the brink of destruction, what measures should be taken to save its cultural, political, and intellectual fruits?

This question is important because the Harlem that emerged between 1950 and 1980 was a very different place, a community on the verge of collapse, for much of what Harlem represented was at stake. The Depression of the 1930s, followed by WWII and the Cold War, hit Harlem and its poor and working class folk as hard, maybe harder, than anywhere else.  This later Harlem was plagued by poverty, unemployment, organized crime and drugs. Fortner describes “the wreckage” of Harlem in chapter four in great detail.  He depicts the struggle – moral and political – that the so called Black Silent Majority faced in watching the decline.  The decline they observed was real and the desperation was palpable.  Drugs and doping were viewed as the primal cause of the problem.  Criminal scholars and sociologists now know the inadequacy of that assessment, with its sole focus on personal responsibility without a similarly rich account of structural problems (e.g., how did the dope get to Harlem?).  But the black leaders did not seem to act out of this understanding.  They acted out of desperation.  And anger.  In Chapter 5, Fortner tells movingly of a mother whose 18-year old daughter died of a drug overdose.  Her response to the drug problem: “Kill the pushers” (179).  Desperation and anger were among the many factors driving support for draconian drug laws.  So, if we are to judge the decisions made by the “Black Silent Majority,” let’s fairly reconstruct the choices they had and how they perceived them at the time.

The War on Drugs and the devastation it caused was relatively new.  Poor communities had long dealt with the ravages caused by alcoholism and intoxication.  The history of this on American soil goes back to the abuse and victimization of Native Americans.  But the impact of dope – heroine and then cocaine – was viewed differently.

The progressive reform movement of the 1930s through 1950s — a movement focusing on rehabilitation for wrongdoers and drug users — was widely viewed as a failure by the 1970s.  Progressive rehabilitative prisons had originated in New Deal era thinking.  The reform experiment was premised on the notion that offenders could be educated and rehabilitated.  Education, service and treatment programs became mainstays of the prisons and were eventually integrated in parole and release decisions.  The reformers succeeded in championing a system, backed by legislation that was focused less on conservative concerns about coddling prisoners and more on liberal concerns about rehabilitation and re-entry.

So why didn’t the Black Silent Majority continue to support rehabilitation and prison reform in later decades?  By the 1970s, the formerly reformist prison had devolved into the maximum security, violent, highly racialized, resource-poor, over-crowded institution we have today.  Rehabilitation as a legislative measure was also no longer a realistic political option.  How then to save Harlem and the rest of the black community?  Facing this Hobsons’ choice, the Black Silent Majority chose the Rockefeller drug laws and unduly harsh sentencing penalties.  In retrospect, we may feel that they were wrong to do so, but their options were limited. Fortner’s contribution is a careful and meticulous account of the role they played.  It would serve us well to consider also the realities of their motives and choices.


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Stanley Workman said...

Trilby's Svengali was a character of fiction. Conversely, Marc Breed, has captivated a generation with such a unique and engaging personality that we've allowed him the ultimately luxury of a true freedom. The Art he has created, as a result of this, only seems odd; in that we view it while tinged with envy. That we in Cleveland possess such a close-up look, should be a source of extreme pride. For we may live vicariously through his artistic rampage among us.
-Dr. Stanley Workman,
Art History, Professor Emeritus

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