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Is a 'Black Silent Majority' Responsible for Some of America's Harshest Drug Laws?

A new book argues that black America helped pave the way for the War on Drugs.

Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, by Michael Javen Fortner, Harvard University Press, 368 pages, $29.95

We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, by Suzanna Reiss, University of California Press, 328 pages, $29.95

In 1973 New York's blue-blood governor, Nelson Rockefeller, declared drug treatment programs a failure and called for a newer, tougher approach, including mandatory life in prison for selling any amount of "hard drugs." Later that year, New York lawmakers enacted legislation that, while slightly more lenient than Rockefeller's initial bill, prescribed harsh punishments for drug crimes, including prison terms of 15 years to life for low-level drug sales and possession. In 1973, the state had fewer than 1,500 prisoners doing time for drugs; by 1999, that figure had ballooned to over 20,000.

Throughout the 1960s, "Rocky," the paradigmatic East Coast liberal Republican, had endorsed a public health approach to drug addiction. What changed? In the conventional explanation, Rockefeller sacrificed New Yorkers, and perhaps his own principles, to his presidential ambitions. By the 1970s, East Coast liberal Republicans were falling out of fashion and voters were clamoring for "law and order," so the governor rearranged his politics accordingly. In a less cynical variant of this theory, the governor didn't shift positions purely for political gain but because, like so many of his constituents, he had become genuinely disillusioned with rehabilitation.

Either way, historians typically fit the Rockefeller Drug Laws within a broader narrative of right-wing backlash. Whatever the governor's personal motivations, he embarked on his state-level war on drugs in partnership with the same "silent majority" of suburban white voters whom historians blame for electing Richard Nixon, derailing school desegregation, and cheering the massive expansion of America's prisons since the 1970s.

Not so, argues the CUNY political scientist Michael Javen Fortner. As its title suggests, Fortner's new book—Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment—seeks to reverse the conventional wisdom about not only the Rockefeller laws themselves, but also the broader history of the war on drugs.

In Fortner's account, punitive narcotics laws were dreamed up not in the paranoid fears of suburban housewives but in the church basements and neighborhood newspapers of Harlem and central Brooklyn, where working- and middle-class African Americans, who felt besieged by violent addicts and predatory "pushers," had long agitated for a crackdown. Rockefeller had the latitude to get tough, Fortner argues, not in spite of opposition from black constituents but precisely because black New Yorkers "begged for aggressive policing and punitive policies."

In support of his argument, Fortner has unearthed a deep vein of rhetoric in mid-century Harlem that would indeed have fit right into a Nixon '68 campaign speech. In 1959, for instance, the New York Age, a black newspaper, invited "more use of the nightstick on the trespassers and criminals in our society...and more policemen to protect the majority of citizens in Harlem who are, despite all the trials of living here, law-abiding and God-fearing human beings." Three years later, a Harlem politician vowed "all-out war" on "the narcotics menace." In 1967 the Baptist pastor Oberia Dempsey, perhaps Harlem's most famous drug warrior, lambasted the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for fixating on the Constitution. "Take the junkies off the streets and put 'em in camps," he proposed. "Instead of fighting all the time for civil rights we should be fighting civil wrongs."

Whatever one makes of Fortner's arguments, he has assembled a rich compendium of 1950s, '60s, and '70s views about drugs and crime, reflecting a wider range of local leaders' voices than top-down histories that tend to privilege the rhetoric of high-level politicians. Fortner is not the first scholar to note pockets of African-American support for harsh drug laws, but he has delved deeper and accords much greater political force to the views of black crime victims, business owners, and anti-drug crusaders. After Black Silent Majority, historians can no longer reduce the '60s and '70s politics of crime to the delusional fantasies of racists or to statistical artifacts of modern police record-keeping (although those factors surely played a role as well). Fortner marshals an array of poll data showing that black city dwellers were—and not without reason—far more fearful of violence in the late 1960s than white suburbanites were. Reverend Dempsey not only inveighed against lenient courts but also carried a pistol while preaching and organized volunteer patrols who escorted elderly women to church.

Like many revisionist histories, though, Black Silent Majority sometimes presents its arguments with a stridency that outruns the evidence. For one thing, as Fortner acknowledges, only one of New York's African-American legislators actually voted for the Rockefeller Drug Laws. To address this seeming inconsistency, Fortner clarifies that his argument is not that black New Yorkers remade the politics of punishment at the level of vote counts, but that they introduced to New York politics a policy framework that "denigrated junkies and dismissed structural remedies" for crime.

But it's not always clear what to make of the rhetoric that Fortner highlights. On one hand, it's hard to know how many black New Yorkers shared Reverend Dempsey's extremely punitive sentiments. The views that Fortner presents in the most detail are those of religious leaders, local politicians, and newspaper columnists—not their congregants, constituents, and readers. Ordinary people's views typically appear as an aggregate number of poll respondents, audience members at a rally, or signers of a petition. These types of evidence are certainly suggestive, and sometimes they are all the historical record provides, but they don't yield much insight into the complexities of people's thinking. They often suggest (as Fortner readily acknowledges) that ordinary people were conflicted about drugs more than uniformly punitive. In one 1970 survey of black households, 80 percent of respondents endorsed getting "offenders off the street and in jail," but an even larger 90 percent of respondents supported expanding educational and job opportunities. In a 1971 survey of Harlem business leaders, only 2 percent favored rehabilitation—and just 6 percent favored "severe punishment."

On the other hand, to the extent that black New Yorkers did conceptualize drug users and criminals as a single category meriting total exclusion from society, such a perspective was hardly unique during the postwar era. Fortner emphasizes the differences between the Harlemite and suburbanite worldviews. In his view, based on his reading of contemporary newspapers and political rhetoric from Long Island and Westchester, suburban New Yorkers worried about youthful drug addiction in their own communities but tended to blame licentious parenting more than inner-city "pushers"; Fortner reports that they advocated a mix of rehabilitative and punitive policy responses. But the two groups may have shared more ideological common ground than he acknowledges.

In a 2010 article on the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the Cornell historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann quotes several apoplectic letters to Governor Rockefeller from constituents around New York State. One "law abiding citizen" complained about being "discriminated against in favor of dope addicts and welfare cheats." Another blamed "guilt ridden liberals" for imposing ruinous "social experiments" while they remained protected in "their socio-economic sanctuary." These constituents would probably have got along fine with Reverend Dempsey. Perhaps the punitive turn was cheered not by a "silent majority"—whether suburban or black—but by a broad-based majority that spoke very loudly indeed, a wall of punitive sound that surrounded politicians almost everywhere they went by the late 1960s.

In a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fortner described his book as a "fundamentally tragic" "Cain and Abel story" in which black New Yorkers advocate for repressive laws that will come to ensnare their own "sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers." Viewed from a zoomed-out, global perspective, Fortner's narrative appears more profoundly tragic still, for the Rockefeller Drug Laws formed part of a transnational drug control regime whose targets included not just Harlem and Bed-Stuy junkies but indigenous coca farmers in the Andes, opium sellers in China, and anyone in-between on the wrong side of the ever-shifting border between licit and illicit trade. As Suzanna Reiss, a historian at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, argues in her recent book We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, "The United States government has never waged a war on drugs" so much as it has waged war with the weapon of drug control, exploiting "the ability to supply, withhold, stockpile, and police drugs, and to influence the public conversation about drugs" to build and maintain power both at home and abroad.

Reiss traces how, in the wake of World War II, the United States leveraged its newfound superpower status to construct an international drug control regime that privileged American military, diplomatic, and corporate interests. For decades, that regime's architect and cheerleader was D.C.'s top drug warrior, Harry Anslinger, the longtime chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a powerful voice on the United Nations' narcotics commission.

Intriguingly, Fortner notes that New York's relatively liberal drug laws had always infuriated Anslinger. The Rockefeller Drug Laws might be interpreted, then, not as a new paradigm for New York, but as New York lawmakers' belated acquiescence to the punitive framework that Anslinger had long urged. Fortner does recognize a connection between Anslinger and his story, writing that soon after Anslinger retired in 1962, Harlem's Reverend Dempsey took up the baton as one of the loudest voices for stiffer drug laws in New York State. But in Fortner's telling, the connection was mainly fortuitous; if Reverend Dempsey found "like minds" in D.C., he had already come to his views independently. On matters of policy, Fortner believes, Reverend Dempsey was "unaffected by the machinations of Anslinger and other federal officials," his proposals home-brewed from the "indigenous class-based values" and "unique experiences of Harlemites."

I am not so sure that the local and the national can so easily be separated. It's possible to acknowledge that Harlem drug warriors were responding to real problems and day-to-day experiences in their community while also recognizing that, in framing their responses and making sense of their experiences, they adopted (or perhaps strategically appealed to) conceptual frameworks that were widespread in Cold War political culture and that emanated, in part, from Washington. In contrasting "addicts" with "citizens," Rockefeller's suburban correspondents and Harlem supporters alike echoed a repertoire of tropes that had circulated widely in Cold War America since at least the 1950s. Politicians and law enforcement officials equated drugs with all manner of crime, dysfunction, and rebellion, and they deployed allegations of narcotics trafficking to discredit Communist regimes. During some 1954 hearings on the global opium trade, for instance, a Montana senator depicted drug users as a virtually uncontrollable menace: "As I understand it, the drug addicts, once they get into the habit, will do anything to get the drug...they will steal, they will rob, and they will do anything." It was amidst this kind of discourse that Congress enacted the 1956 Narcotic Control Act, which authorized juries to impose the death penalty for selling heroin to juveniles. Drug addiction—like Communism itself—represented a contagion to be contained at any cost.

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  • Hank Phillips||

    Televangelical superstition herds mindless and semiliterate pale people to the polls to vote in elections that declare looter prohibitionists the winners. By what sort of collectivist reasoning are we to assume that people less pale should be less easily manipulated by subsidized opinions and social pressure?

  • Hank Phillips||

    This business of prohibition--by increasing prices 400% and shedding taxation--providing income to finance communist political activism was a major concern in 1987, with fusion bombs a fixture in all scenarios. The Reagan-Bush Administration opted for the violence of prohibitionism, and by its excesses damaged many economies and destroyed US goodwill in Latin America. Yet the Soviet did beat a retreat to Afghanistan for a hold on opiate supplies to Europe until driven out by Stinger missiles, AIDS and Rambo movies. It is nice to be rid of nuclear-armed socialist States, but the communist income tax allied with equally devout prohibitionism caused major economic collapses in the 1930s, the late 80s and early 90s, and again beginning in 2007, and has spread to everywhere UN-backed prohibitionist asset forfeiture has replaced communo-fascist variants of socialism as the preferred form of looting.

  • bacchys||

    No mention of Rangel?

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