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A man sits on the trunk of a Cadillac Fleetwood in Harlem, 1970.

In his new book, Michael Javen Fortner argues that New York’s black population mostly backed the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which precipitated mass incarceration. Vergara, via Library of Congress.review featured a graphic rendering of somber black men clad in orange jumpsuits imprisoned behind a fence made from the bodies of neatly dressed black men and women.

Strikingly, the impediments are faceless, with only an occasional wisp of pink lip or sculpted facial hair, but the period-piece A-line skirts, peg leg suits, and skinny ties speak for themselves.

One in three African American men will serve time in prison if present rates persist, leading Alexander to characterize mass incarceration as the most important contemporary form of “racialized social control.” Like the counter-revolution that overthrew Radical Reconstruction and established legalized segregation and convict leasing, mass incarceration’s origins lie, she argues, in the backlash against the successes of the modern black freedom struggle: “Mass incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.” Alexander’s interpretation is far from unique, reflecting a broad range of new scholarship that understands race and racism as essential to the punitive turn in American politics in the years after the Voting Rights Act.

In response, Fortner accuses Alexander and others of oversimplifying the origins of the modern carceral state by focusing on white backlash instead of black crime victims. crime victims are rendered invisible.” This scholarship is guilty of “ignoring black agony.” He sets about reclaiming the “agency” of “working- and middle-class African Americans” suffering at the hands of “junkies” and a pervasive “black underclass” sprouted from the urban decay of the 1960s and ’70s.

“Despite the popularity of such theories,” Fortner argues, “they mask more than they expose . On Fortner’s telling, the supposed black silent majority countered a tide of intra-racial violence with a successful movement against drugs and crime culminating in the passage of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the takeoff of mass incarceration.

The respectable classes of Fortner’s “black silent majority” form a literal wall of black human bondage.

Through the magic of design, the book’s thesis is rendered in a deeply visceral way: African Americans themselves, not white backlash against black advancement, mobilized the phalanx behind mass incarceration.

• • • is an ambitious and provocative book by a young African American political scientist, who argues that “working- and middle-class African Americans are partially responsible for the mass incarceration of black sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers and the misery that they endured while committed to penal institutions in New York.” Fortner takes aim at a whole body of scholarship, journalistic writings, and activist wisdom stressing the centrality of anti-black racism to the war on drugs and, by implication, mass incarceration.

He directs particular ire at Michelle Alexander’s bestseller, (2010), which forcefully demonstrates how the drug war and the criminal justice system more broadly have become the biggest obstacle to black equality since legalized segregation.

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