With #BlackLivesMatter bringing the 1994 Crime Bill back into the fore, and a competitive race for the Democratic presidential nomination that has placed Bill and Hillary Clinton’s record back on trial in the court of public opinion, more people than ever are asking: what really happened in the 90s? How did we get here, into a world of harsh sentencing and mass incarceration? And how can understanding what happened in the past help us move forward?
The Murphy Institute’s Michael Javen Fortner, author of the widely-reviewed book Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, recently spoke with Salon.com’s Chauncey Devega to address some of these questions. Check out some of this fascinating interview below, and head to Salon to read it in full.
As I watched Bill Clinton’s exchange with the “Black Lives Matter” protesters in Philadelphia several weeks ago, I immediately thought of your book “The Black Silent Majority.” What was your response to Bill Clinton’s behavior at the Philadelphia rally?
I had two reactions. One was that Bill Clinton is obviously out of practice and he continues to be amazingly thin-skinned. In terms of a political performance he acted badly. I thought he was condescending and way too defensive. I also thought it was strange at first, because he also has in the past repudiated some of his anti-crime strategies. His wife also gave a speech on the era of mass incarceration saying that it needs to end. So Bill Clinton’s attitude and posture towards the protesters given all those factors seems strange and unwise.
My second reaction to Bill Clinton was that there was some truth to what he was saying. The part where he suggested that he had been hearing from African-American groups and individuals that the federal government needed to do something about crime in the streets and that their children were dying was largely correct. Continue reading Michael Fortner Talks to Salon About 1994 Crime Bill & More
Murphy Prof. Michael Fortner’s new book Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment has taken the media world by storm, garnering press from publications, radio and television. In addition to coverage in the New Yorker and Chronicle of Higher Ed, the book has been featured in the NYTimes and New York Magazine and on Brian Lehrer.
From Fortner’s own op-ed in the New York Times last week, The Real Roots of 70’s Drug Laws:
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.
Murphy Institute Professor Michael Fortner’s hotly anticipated new book Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment gains yet more coverage with the latest edition of the New Yorker. In Kelefa Sanneh’s review, Body Count, the writer places Fortner’s book in conversation with the latest from Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) as well as Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow:
This summer, the Black Lives Matter movement got a literary manifesto, in the form of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” (Spiegel & Grau), a slender but deeply resonant book that made its début atop the Times best-seller list[…]
Four decades ago, a number of black leaders were talking in similarly urgent terms about the threats to the black body. The threats were, in the words of one activist, “cruel, inhuman, and ungodly”: black people faced the prospect not just of physical assault and murder but of “genocide”—the horror of slavery, reborn in a new guise. The activist who said this was Oberia D. Dempsey, a Baptist pastor in Harlem, who carried a loaded revolver, the better to defend himself and his community. Dempsey’s main foe was not the police and the prisons; it was drugs, and the criminal havoc wreaked by dealers and addicts. Continue reading New Yorker Coverage of Book by Prof. Michael Fortner
Next month marks the launch of Murphy Professor Michael Javen Fortner’s eye-opening new book, Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment. A controversial and important account of the role that some in the African-American community played in encouraging punitive policies during the 1970s, in particular the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the book asks vital questions about agency, history and how we can strive for real peace and justice in an era of mass incarceration.
Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on Fortner and Black Silent Majority (Defending Their Homes: How crime-terrorized African-Americans helped spur mass incarceration, by Marc Parry, Aug 3rd, 2015). In it, Parry describes Fortner’s engagement with Michelle Alexander’s explosive 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:
What vexed Fortner was that The New Jim Crow seemed to be two different books. One did a powerful job showing how mass incarceration undermines black communities and perpetuates racial inequality. The other — and this was the vexing part — advanced a political theory about how we got here. That history stressed the resilience of white supremacy. First came slavery; when slavery ended, a white backlash brought Jim Crow segregation; when Jim Crow crumbled, a backlash to the civil-rights movement spawned yet another caste system, mass incarceration. Each time, writes Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, proponents of racial hierarchy achieved their goals “largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites.” Continue reading Crime, Punishment and the Black Community: the Untold Story of the Rockefeller Drug Laws
Assistant Professor Michael Fortner, Academic Director of Urban Studies at the Murphy Institute, has a new book available for preorder on Amazon.
Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment will be formally released on September 7, 2015. As described on Amazon, “Black Silent Majority uncovers the role African Americans played in creating today’s system of mass incarceration… Fortner traces how many blacks in New York came to believe that the rehabilitation-focused liberal policies of the 1960s had failed. Faced with economic malaise and rising rates of addiction and crime, they blamed addicts and pushers. By 1973, the outcry from grassroots activists and civic leaders in Harlem calling for drastic measures presented Rockefeller with a welcome opportunity to crack down on crime and boost his political career. New York became the first state to mandate long prison sentences for selling or possessing narcotics.”
Photo by Kate Ter Haar via flickr (CC-BY).
Is mass incarceration a labor issue? According to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the answer is a resounding “yes”.
According to Dave Jamieson, writing in the Huffington Post, Trumka is prepared to give remarks on Friday “offering robust support” for California’s Porposition 47, a proposal that would downgrade non-violent crimes to misdemeanors, thereby rendering thousands of state and county prisoners eligible for immediate release or sentence reduction.
Trumka’s prepared remarks state, “It’s a labor issue because mass incarceration means literally millions of people work jobs in prisons for pennies an hour — a hidden world of coerced labor here in the United States…It’s a labor issue because those same people who work for pennies in prison, once they have served their time, find themselves locked out of the job market by employers who screen applicants for felony convictions.” Continue reading Harsh Prison Sentences: A Labor Issue?