Studies in American Political Development

Research Article

The Carceral State and the Crucible of Black Politics: An Urban History of the Rockefeller Drug Laws   1

Michael Javen Fortner 

Rutgers University-Camden


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.


1.  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.