a journal of modern society & culture

Black Bodies and the Problem of “Linked-Fate”

Michael Javen Fortner

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers ignited something.  People protested. Cities burned. Though seemingly sympathetic to the cause, many feared the conflagrations in the streets. 

“Above everything else, I am a mother,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms remarked at a press conference she called after hearing “rumors about violent protests in Atlanta.” The African American politician presented her racial bona fides: “I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old. And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt.” The racial solidarity and black pain notwithstanding, she chastised those contemplating “violent protests.” Referencing the noble struggle for equal rights to justify her admonition, she blared, “You’re not honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. You’re not protesting anything running out with brown liquor in your hands and breaking windows in this city.” The message was clear: “Go home!” [1]

Coming amidst racial revolts and from African American leaders, these pleas and denunciations caught some by some surprise. At the Black Agenda Report, which provides “news, commentary and analysis from the black left,” a columnist observed, “The nationwide protests have forced the Black quisling class to reveal themselves as agents of the racial and economic status quo.” “Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was among the worst.”[2] This critique, like most analyses of contemporary African American politics, assumes “linked-fate”— the theory that individual blacks believe their life chances are tied to those of their racial group and, as a result, rely on group-based cues when formulating political preferences.[3] As such, this critique is shortsighted. Group-based frames do not emerge automatically or naturally from the racial order. Michael Dawson, who pioneered the framework, insists that they were reinforced and reproduced “historically by institutions developed during the forced separation of blacks from whites during the post-Reconstruction era.”[4] Yet it is also possible that these cues are constructed, revised, and deployed by African Americans elites who are motivated by the concerns and constraints of their positions within local socioeconomic systems and political orders instead of their experiences with white supremacy. To appreciate the significance of Bottoms’ race-based warnings, it is critical to recognize the ways in which class and age shape African American experiences with the criminal justice system and trace how Atlanta’s black middle-class leadership exploited racial frames to conceal this division as it constructed the city’s governing regime.  

Despite the rich scholarship and advocacy that have alerted us to the racial dimensions of the modern carceral state,[5] the hurt felt by contemporary policing and punishment is not equally distributed among African Americans.[6] Becky Pettit and Bruce Western calculated the cumulative chances of imprisonment for cohorts of white, black, and Latino men. In the cohort born between 1975 and 1979, 68% of black high school dropouts had prison records, while around 20% of black men with a GED had prison records and 6.6% of black men with a college degree had prison records.  Ultimately, they conclude that the “significant growth of incarceration rates among the least educated reflects increasing class inequality in incarceration through the period of the prison boom.”[7]

Generational differences also matter. Pettit and Western also found that 14.7% of African American males born between 1945 and 1949 had served time in prison, a dramatic difference from the late 1970s cohort. They state, “For the younger cohort born from 1975 to 1979, the lifetime risk of imprisonment for African American men had increased to one in four.”[8]  For these men, “Prison time has become a normal life event.” Aggressive tactics, like stop-and-frisk, expand black youth exposure to the criminal justice system.[9] For example, although black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 make up 5% of New York City’s population, they represented 38 percent of reported stops between 2014 and 2017.[10] It is not surprising that 38% of respondents in the 2019 Black Census survey reported having their first negative encounter with police before the age of 18.[11]

Political attitudes reflect these generational differences. In a 2019 Pew survey, African Americans identified racism (75%), drug addiction (74%), and health care (73%) as “very big problems” in the country. Despite worrying about “racism,” 53% of African Americans ages 50 and older felt that blacks and whites get along very well or pretty well, compared with 33% of black adults younger than 50.[12] In a 2019 national survey of African Americans conducted for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, respondents listed the following as their top three priorities: housing (68%), health care (67%), and (67%) racism. Although 57% mentioned criminal justice reform, it ranked 13th on the list.[13] In contrast, younger African Americans are far more focused on mass incarceration and policing. In a 2016 GenForward Survey of 1750 young adults, ages 18-30, black respondents listed police brutality (42%), racism (40%), and (36%) education as the most important issues facing America.[14]

Younger African Americans also approach these issues differently than older blacks, especially in the South. Based on their analysis of the 2001 Race, Crime, and Public Opinion project’s survey, Lawrence Bobo and Victor R. Thompson found that “older southern blacks were less likely than younger non-southern blacks to make a structuralist argument about crime origins.”[15] That hasn’t changed much.  In the 2019 Black Census survey, 53% of those over the age of 60 believed that police-community relations would be improved if parents took more responsibility for the behavior of their children. Of course, younger respondents were much less supportive of this approach.[16]

These socioeconomic and attitudinal trends, however, are only part of the story. Atlanta’s contemporary policing regime is itself a product of intra-racial class and generational divisions. “The city too busy to hate” played a pivotal role in the twentieth century struggle for black rights.[17] Staff at the Atlanta Police Department (APD) refer to the southern city as “the home of civil rights” where the “the discussion of race is always front and center.”[18] Even so, the benefits of Atlanta’s fabled revolution have not been evenly distributed among African Americans. As Clarence Stone assayed in his classic study, “skills and resources of the black middle class [enabled] its members to take advantage of opportunities” presented by the post-Civil Rights governing coalition.[19]

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the politics of policing and punishment. During the 1970s, African American leaders mobilized against white police chief John Inman. As the New York Times reported, “Many blacks contend that the chief…runs a racist force.”[20] Activists demanded an end to police brutality and the implementation of affirmative action programs.[21] After Maynard Jackson’s election as the city’s first black mayor, he made progress on some of these goals. He appointed Reginald Eaves Atlanta’s first black public safety commissioner, and, by 1976, Eaves had promoted more than 80 blacks within the APD, which represented 30% of entire department—much lower than the African American proportion of the city’s population, 60%.[22] By 2016, however, African Americans made up 58% of full-time sworn personnel, slightly higher than their proportion of the city’s population, 52%[23] Black power arrived, yet punishment persisted. This was not a coincidence.

By the early 1970s, many in the city’s African American middle class began to turn on the poor and the young as crime rates rose and used the language of race—versions of “linked fate”— to define certain “criminal acts” as threats to the community.[24] Historian Danielle Wiggins’s incisive study of Atlanta uncovers this tragic past. At a 1981 meeting with Jackson, Lee P. Brown, the black Public Safety Commissioner, and other city officials, businesses and property owners from Sweet Auburn—the city’s historic black business district—complained about the “criminal elements” that had been “slowing down economic development and making life miserable for many merchants.” A representative from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center described prostitution as a blight on the area. Others stressed loitering.  Wiggins reports, “Several citizens pointed to the problems in the criminal justice system, particularly at the municipal court level, arguing that the courts needed to be stricter and more systematic in their sentencing of such victimless crimes.”[25]

The economic imperatives of the metropolitan area’s pro-growth regime certainly impacted policing strategies. Wiggins rightly notes that white businesses, whose views were “colored by racial animus,” worried that crime would harm Atlanta’s reputation as “a business-friendly city.”  Still, it would be a mistake to charge black officials with capitulating to white economic or racial demands. Her research documents a biracial coalition “united in their demand for greater police presence to address crimes against persons, property, and order.” African Americans were not passive members of this alliance: “Black city council members were on the forefront in proposing city legislation that would restore order and decency to the streets of Atlanta.”[26] Councilmember Marvin Arrington, then a “rising star in the city’s black political class,” co-authored with a conservative white councilmember an ordinance that made it “unlawful” for “for any person to act in a violent, turbulent, boisterous, indecent, or disorderly manner or to use profane, vulgar, or obscene language in the city, tending to disturb good order, peace, and dignity in said city.” [27]

The leaders and institutions that defined post-Reconstruction black civil society used race, including the language of “black-on-black crime,” to impugn black “criminals” and justify vigorous policing and prosecution of them. At its 71st annual convention in 1980, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) adopted a resolution on “Black-on-Black crime.” It attributed the “upsurge in crimes committed by blacks against blacks” to “high unemployment, poor academic training and inadequate housing, among other factors,” but called upon “black communities, law enforcement agencies and courts of law to recognize that crimes committed by blacks against blacks are as unlawful, are as humanely devastating and are as undesirable in our black communities as crimes committed by blacks upon whites, or any group.[28] It further resolved that the criminal justice system must not “allow an indifferent reaction to crimes visited upon blacks by blacks.”[29]  

Over a decade later, the organization’s Board of Directors echoed these sentiments. Addressing the statistic that 94% of blacks murdered were murdered by other blacks that year, the board wrote, “Blaming these tragic figures on racism alone is not enough.” It added, “We must frankly discuss the lack of respect for personal life, family disintegration, the loss of long-held values and a lack of respect for institutions and principles which have long served us so well.[30] Thus, while acknowledging the structural origins of disorder, the NAACP, at a critical juncture in the history mass incarceration, viewed “black on black crime” as a particularly contemptible category of unlawful activity, one that warranted special attention by the community and law enforcement.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, many African American elites in Atlanta reinforced these ideas.  In 1986, Cynthia Tucker, African American columnist for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, wrapped Mayor Andrew Young, the city’s second black mayor, and other leaders for not taking on “black on black crime” more vigorously. She complained that the black community “indulges in another form of denial or misconception or misunderstanding about crime that is treacherous.” “The reluctance to acknowledge the black criminal,” she averred, “as a grave threat to the black community is, quite literally, killing people.” She concluded the column with great foreboding: “If the black community doesn’t attack black-on-black crime, the number of black males will be cut in half and the black family will simply disappear. There won’t be any black institutions left to battle either crime or racism.”[31]

Though Tucker’s reflections might seem extreme or alarmist, they were repeated by many in the city’s black middle-class leadership. In 1988, the Atlanta Baptist Ministers Union, a group of 250 black clergy, met to pressure judges to increases sentences for black offenders. After citing statistics showing that 144 of 184 black murder victims had been killed by blacks in 1987, Rev. Daryll Gray, stressed that “We have to fight back in order to prevent our community from [being] killed off.”[32] Even progressive voices in the community reiterated these claims. In 1994, US Representative from Atlanta John Lewis, who had been a valiant foot soldier and general in the Civil Rights movement, issued a new call to arms, declaring, “Once again, the time has come for our communities to take a stand to protect our future. We have to galvanize forces as we did in the 1960s… We have to secure our social and economic freedom. And we must stop the drug trade and Black-on-Black violence that is plaguing our communities.”  Viewing urban crime as threat to the gains of the civil rights moments, Lewis observed, “There are young teenage hoodlums who are wrecking the gains made by young blacks and white students who went to jail–and-even died–for human rights. These punks (who are killing each other) are selling the legacy of the Freedom [Rides] down the river.”[33] Once again black “punks” and “teenage hoodlums” were made the enemy of black people and progress.

We have come full circle. It is not surprising that young black people who bore the brunt of the city’s policing apparatus might have contemplated “violent protests”—taking the city like William Tecumseh Sherman. It’s also not surprising that black leaders who built that organization in defense of their middle-class norms and in pursuit of their economic interests would seek to quell this rebellion. Keisha Lance Bottoms is not a quisling. When her actions are situated within the proper historical context, her true loyalties become clear. As Atlanta’s middle-class leadership was building black power for some, it was also pushing black punishment for others.  It then used versions of “linked-fate” to conceal the discrepancy. This leadership depicted those who reacted to domination and deprivation in ways they deemed unsuitable as traitors to the race and its shared political project. The mayor’s press conference simply followed in this long tradition.

In the end, Atlanta exposes the limits of “linked fate” as an explanatory framework and political goal. Racial solidarity can be a powerful engine of social change: a prerequisite of black power in American cities. But “linked fate” tells us very little about how that power is to be distributed and for whose benefit it is deployed. In a moment full of radical potential, the black mayor of Atlanta attempted to put out the fire burning in young African Americans who have had to endure police mistreatment and abuse.  Although she exploited notions of “linked-fate” to do so, Mayor Bottoms stood as a standard bearer for a certain class, not as a race woman. As Adolph Reed constantly reminds us, what we observe as race politics just might be class politics in disguise.[34] The murder of George Floyd has unmasked much about structural racism in the United States. Perhaps it has also laid bare the systemic political and moral failings of contemporary African American politics.


Notes

[1] “FULL TEXT: Read Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ plea for her city,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, May 30, 2018.

[2] Margaret Kimberley, “Freedom Rider: Black Misleaders Seek to End Protest,” Black Agenda Report, June 2, 2020.

[3] Claudine Gay, Jennifer Hochschild, and Ariel White. “Americans’ Belief in Linked Fate: Does the Measure Capture the Concept?.” Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Politics 1, no. 1 (2016): 117-144.

[4] Michael C. Dawson, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1995.

[5] John F. Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform (New York: Basic Books, 2017). Marie Gottschalk, Caught: the Prison State and the Lockdown of American politics (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2016).   

[6] Michael Javen Fortner, Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of punishment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015). James Fortner, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).

[7] Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, “Incarceration & Social inequality,” Daedalus 139, no. 3 (2010): 8-19.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Andrew Gelman, Jeffrey Fagan, and Alex Kiss, “An Analysis of the New York City Police Department’s ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ Policy in the Context of Claims of Racial Bias,” Journal of the American Statistical Association 102, no. 479 (2007): 813-823.

[10] New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop-and-frisk in the de Blasio era (New York: New York Civil Liberties Union, 2019).

[11] Black Futures Lab, More Black than Blue: Politics and Power in the 2019 Black Census, (Oakland: Black Futures Lab, 2019).

[12] Pew Research Center, “Race in America 2019,”April 2019.

[13]Ryan Pougiales and Jessica Fulton, A Nuanced Picture of What Black Americans Want in 2020 (Washington, DC: Third Way and Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 2019)

[14]Cathy J. Cohen, Matthew D. Luttig, and Jon C. Rogowski, Young People Speak Out about the 2016 Campaign, Policing, and Immigration: A summary of key findings from the first-of-its-kind monthly survey of racially and ethnically diverse young adult (Chicago: Genforward Survey, University of Chicago, 2016).

[15] Victor R. Thompson and Lawrence D. Bobo. “Thinking about crime: Race and lay accounts of lawbreaking behavior.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 634, no. 1 (2011): 16-38.

[16] Black Futures Lab, More Black than Blue.

[17] Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[18] Coffey Consulting, LLC and American Institutes for Research (AIR), Promising Practices for Increasing Diversity Among First Responders (Washington, DC: US Department of Labor, 2016).

[19] Clarence N. Stone, “Race and Regime in Atlanta,” in Racial Politics in American Cities, eds. Rufus P. Browning, Dale Rogers Marshall, and David H. Tabb (New York: Longman), 137. Clarence N. Stone, Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1989).

[20] B. Drummond Ayres, Jr., “Attempt to Oust Chief of Police Perils Atlanta’s Racial Harmony.” New York Times, June 24, 1974. Michael Javen Fortner, “Straight, no chaser: Theory, history, and the Muting of the Urban State.” Urban Affairs Review 52, no. 4 (2016): 591-621.

[21] Ronald H. Bayor, Race and the Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

[22] Wayne King, “Black Commissioner of Police Overcomes Bad Start in Atlanta,” New York Times, May 31, 1976.

[23] Coffey Consulting, LLC and American Institutes for Research (AIR), Promising Practices for Increasing Diversity Among First Responders.   

[24] Michael Javen Fortner, “The Carceral State and the Crucible of Black Politics: An Urban History of the Rockefeller Drug Laws,” Studies in American Political Development 27, no. 1 (2013): 14-35.

[25] Danielle Wiggins, “‘Order as well as Decency’: The Development of Order Maintenance Policing in Black Atlanta.” Journal of Urban History Vol. 46, no. 4(2020): 711–727.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Resolutions Adopted by the 71st Annual Convention of the NAACP at Miami Beach, Florida, June 30-July 4, 1980,” The Crisis, November 1980, 443.

[29] “NAACP Plans to Attack Black-on-Black Crime,” Herald-Journal, October 18, 1992.    

[30] “NAACP Plans to Attack Black-on-Black Crime,” Herald-Journal, October 18, 1992.    

[31] Cynthia Tucker, “Black-on-Black Crime: A Plague Deadly for Black Males and All of Us,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 19, 1986. 

[32] Duane Riner, “Clergy: Toughen Sentences in Black-on-Black Crime,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 11, 1988.

[33] Larry Still, “Rep. Lewis Seeks United Stand on Black Violence,” Chicago Citizen, January 5, 1992. 

[34] Adolph Reed, “Antiracism: A Neoliberal Alternative to a Left.” Dialectical Anthropology 42, no. 2 (2018): 105-115.  Adolph Reed, Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).