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Dr. Michael Javen Fortner’s book, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, has ignited critical conversations in the academy and in public discourse. Among other things, the book describes a sort of “politics of respectability” within the black community and its impact on drug enforcement policy. The politics of respectability is a term coined twenty-five years ago by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in Righteous Discontent to describe the social pressures by elite memb ers of the black community to ensure that other blacks were behaving respectably rather than affirming assumptions and stereotypes that the white community might have of blacks. Fortner’s book compels us to question the implications when, as is often the case in the African-American community, unelected social or religious leaders are assumed to represent the larger group. This is an important question for policy makers in the era of Black Lives Matter, a movement with a new model of diffused or unconventional leadership. Who should speak for whom? Black Silent Majority is a historical account of the role that a sub-group of African-American played in one of the most important socio-legal phenomena of the last half-century: the mass incarceration. In particular, Fortner explores how a privileged “silent majority” of black New Yorkers (preachers, politicians, businesspeople, the so-called “talented tenth,” and others) paved the way for 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. Harlem became a mecca of artistic, cultural and intellectual engagement during this period. This was the time of Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, and Josephine Baker. This renaissance was seeded by the great migration—the explosion of more than 6 million people to the North from the South in Harlem. Harlem – in this place and in this time – was as close to a capital of Black America as there could be.

With this in mind, contemplate this question: if this Harlem were 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 indeed on the verge of collapse. According to Fortner, much of what Harlem represented was at stake. The Depression of the 1930’s, followed by WWII and the Cold War, hit Harlem and its poor and working class folk as hard, maybe harder, than anywhere else. This 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 “Black Silent Majority” faced in watching the decline. The decline they observed was real and the desperation was palatable. Drugs and doping were viewed as the primal cause of the problem. Criminal scholars and sociologists know now 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 with this understanding. They acted out of desperation and anger. In one chapter, Fortner movingly describes the anguish of a mother whose 18-year old daughter died of a drug overdose. Her response to the drug problem: “Kill the pushers.” (P. 179.) This view, that drug crimes warrant the most serious punishment, was spreading quickly. But desperation and anger were not the only factors in supporting the draconian drug laws. If we are to judge the decisions made by the “Black Silent Majority,” let’s fairly reconstruct the choices they had as they perceived them at the time.

The War on Drugs and the devastation it caused was relatively new. Poor communities have long dealt with the ravage 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 — had failed. Progressive rehabilitative prisons — supported by the Black Silent Majority — were part of the New Deal era thinking. New rehabilitate service-oriented vocational facilities were to be financed in part by the Works Progress Administration. The reformation experiment was premised on the notion that offenders could be educated and rehabilitated. Education, service and treatment programs were mainstays of the prisons and eventually were 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 support rehabilitation and prison reform? They did, but by the 1970’s the reformist prisons had devolved into the maximum security, violent, highly racialized, resource-poor, over-crowded institution we have today. Rehabilitation as a legislative measure was no longer a political or realistic 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, they were wrong to do so, but their options and resources 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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Cite as: Margareth Etienne, Saving Harlem from Drugs: A Hobson’s Choice, JOTWELL (August 14, 2017) (reviewing Michael Javen Fortner, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment (2015)),