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The Carceral State and the Crucible of Black Politics: An Urban History of the Rockefeller Drug Laws1

  • Michael Javen Fortner (a1)
Abstract

While scholars have illuminated the effects of mass incarceration, the origins of the criminal justice policies that produced these outcomes remain unclear. Many explanations obscure as much as they reveal—in great measure because they either ignore or minimize the consequences of crime. Emphasizing the exploitation of white fears, the construction of black criminality, or the political strategies of Republican political elites, prevailing theories ignore black crime victims. In order to excavate the historical roots of the modern carceral state, this study traces the development of New York State's Rockefeller drug laws. Rather than beginning in Albany, this history focuses on Harlem, a community hit hardest by rising crime rates and drug addiction. Drawing upon a variety of primary sources, this study traces how African American activists framed and negotiated the incipient drug problem in their neighborhoods and interrogates the policy prescriptions they attached to indigenously constructed frames. It describes how middle-class African Americans facing the material threats of crime and crime-related problems drew upon the moral content of indigenous class categories to understand these threats and develop policy prescriptions. It reveals how the black middle class shaped the development of this punitive policy and played a crucial role in the development of mass incarceration.

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Copyright
Corresponding author
michael.fortner@rutgers.edu
Footnotes
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I am grateful to Michael Durfee, Jesus Franco, Jennifer Fronc, Richard Harris, Jennifer Hochschild, Eric Schneider, Robert Sampson, Joseph Spillane, and Alan Tarr for very helpful comments on earlier drafts or in response to queries. I would also like to thank Kumar Ghafoor, Jason D. Rivera, Daniel Staplekamp, Jonathan Warren, and Zachary Wood for excellent research assistance. Finally, I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers and the editors of this journal for very helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Devah Pager, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Megan Comfort, Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010)

Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline and Transformation in Postwar American History,” Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 703–34

Lisa L. Miller, “The Invisible Black Victim: How American Federalism Perpetuates Racial Inequality in Criminal Justice,” Law & Society Review 44, nos. 3–4 (2010): 805–42

Kenneth D. Durr, Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940–1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)

Herbert Blumer, “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position,” Pacific Sociological Review 1, no. 1 (1958): 3–; emphasis in original

Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)

Deborah A. Stone, “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas,” Political Science Quarterly 104, no. 2 (1989): 281300

Doris Marie Provine, Unequal under Law: Race in the War on Drugs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Robert Gangi, “The Rockefeller Drug Laws,” in Racializing Justice, Disenfranchising Lives: The Racism, Criminal Justice, and Law Reader, ed. Manning Marable, Ian Steinberg, and Keesha Middlemass (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 49

Peter A. Hall, “Aligning Ontology and Methodology in Comparative Research,” in Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, ed. James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 373404

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Studies in American Political Development
  • ISSN: 0898-588X
  • EISSN: 1469-8692
  • URL: /core/journals/studies-in-american-political-development
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