The American intelligentsia is excited about a new book with a shocking and previously unheard thesis: black people do not like crime in their neighborhoods. Does this revolutionary idea change everything we thought we knew?
The book in question is Black Silent Majority by Michael Javen Fortner, an urban studies professor at the City University of New York. It was released today, so few (including me) have read it yet—but it is already receiving what qualifies as saturation coverage, by history book standards.
Kelefa Sanneh wrote about it two weeks ago in The New Yorker. Then came a mention in The Atlantic. It was reviewed in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Today, there is a New York magazine story, and a New York Times op-ed by Fortner himself. Even before hitting stores, this work about a relatively narrow slice of sociology and history has run the table of New York’s major highbrow publications.
So what is the idea put forth by Fortner that merits so much attention? It is that our nation’s devastating war on drugs and the brutal sentencing laws that went with it—ushered in by New York’s Rockefeller drug laws in the 1970s, and continuing well into the Reagan era—is not just a product of white America’s oppressive policies aimed at harshly penalizing the black community, but also a product of black community leaders who were fed up with drugs and crime, and wanted something done about it, and made their opinion known, and lent political support to the initial wave of harsh drug laws. Or, as Fortner himself puts it, “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.”
But what is Fortner really saying? Here is what he is saying, in its simplest form: Most black people don’t like to be victims of crime. Yes! Wow! This is the fresh new insight that will be sweeping our national thinkpiece media for at least the remainder of this week. Fortner writes of Harlem business owners and reverends who called for tough-on-crime measures when heroin was engulfing their neighborhood, and of some black politicians who did the same thing on a more national scale. He tells New York magazine that the “black silent majority” living in high crime areas, and suffering from the immediate dangers of crime, is more concerned about being crime victims than typical liberals who observe from safer neighborhoods afar and focus only on the police brutality side of the equation.
Okay. So? Does this constitute a meaningful insight into either American history or policymaking? Black people, who have suffered hundreds of years of systematic legal and economic oppression, tend to be poorer, and live in poorer neighborhoods, where there is more crime, and—here is the big reveal—they do not like being crime victims. At times in the past they asked their government to do something about all the crime. Okay?
Fortner’s observations constitute little more common sense observation about reality—and, therefore, are not particularly interesting or noteworthy. For you to be impressed by Fortner’s thesis, in fact, would require that you previously did not believe that black people disliked being crime victims, and that they never would have asked politicians to do something about crime in black communities. You would have to be a fool! Why, then, is Fortner getting so much attention? Because of the more pernicious aspect of his argument, which is: to the degree that the black community asked for these sorts of tough-on-crime laws, the white political power structure (and nation at large) is absolved of responsibility for creating a racist police state that disproportionately incarcerated black people in almost unimaginable numbers. While Fortner may be aiming only to restore some notion of the black community’s hand in guiding its own fate—which is fine, set properly in the context of American historical reality—you can bet that his argument will soon be seized upon as a right wing rallying cry.
“Hey, black people asked for this.”
[Photos via AP]