When black lives mattered

Don’t miss Jason Riley’s review of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, by Michael Javen Fortner. Riley’s review bears the perfect title “When Black Lives Mattered.” During the period chronicled in Fortner’s book, black lives mattered enough to try to protect them by vigorously fighting drug-related crime.

Fortner, an African-American who teaches at City University of New York, was raised in Brooklyn during the height of the crack epidemic. He can thus describe “the hurt and terror of those who clutch their billfolds as they sleep, of those who exit their apartments and leave their buildings with trepidation, and of those who have had to bury a son or daughter because of gang activity, the drug trade, or random violence.”

These people are the “black silent majority” referred to in the title of Fortner’s book.

The Rockefeller drug laws referred to therein are tough anti-drug measures adopted at the urging of the black silent majority. Fortner’s research persuaded him that this cohort, not unreasonably, “was much more alarmed about drug addiction and violent crime than its white analogue” and ultimately motivated to take action.

It was blacks, he says, who instigated the crackdown on black criminality, often over the opposition of white liberals and black political elites. Eventually, New York’s governor Nelson Rockefeller, “no pioneer of punishment,” began to recite the grievances of working- and middle-class blacks, to “appropriate their language and echo the discourse of their movement.”

The same phenomenon occurred nationally. Black newspapers in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, DC denounced “Brother ’HOOD in Black Communities,” i.e., drug dealers and gang members. Activists recognized that crack cocaine, in particular, was laying waste to black neighborhoods.

That’s why Congress eventually passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which imposed much harsher penalties for crack-cocaine offenses than for crimes involving powder cocaine. Although this sentencing disparity would come to be denounced as racist, Riley points out that “Representatives Charles Rangel and Major Owens, two black liberal Democrats from New York not known for their reluctance to play the race card, led the fight to impose the differential.” Indeed, a majority of black lawmakers serving in Congress in 1986 supported the law and, according to Riley, even those black congressmen who opposed it did not do so on grounds that it was racially unfair.

Thus, there is no merit to the claim of authors like Michelle Alexander that a white backlash against the civil rights gains of the 1950s and 1960s led to the utilization of penal policy to restore the old Jim Crow social order of white supremacy.

Nonetheless, the attitude of black lawmakers today seems to reflect Alexander’s slander. They are pushing (along with many of their white colleagues) for shorter sentences for drug dealers and for the release of many drug dealers who have not yet served their time.

What explains the change? I assume it reflects a change of opinion in black communities (though I don’t know this for a fact). Have blacks forgotten how bad things were in the 1970s and 1980s? Or do the laws they favored back then reflect an overestimation of the ability of young black males to avoid criminality under a tough sentencing regime?

Does opposition to this regime reflect defeatism with regard to the fight against drugs or optimism that things somehow will work out better this time under a softer regime?

I don’t know. But Fortner’s book and Riley’s review strongly suggest that if the black silent majority now favors a significant softening of the laws on drug dealing, it should be careful of what it wishes for.