When I began researching grassroots responses to crack-cocaine I found myself—albeit naively—both surprised and confused by heavy-handed, aggressive calls for more policing and harsher sentencing from working and middle class black urbanites. Was this unique to the period? Did this represent a specific and different response to the marketing invention of crack? Moreover, I found myself asking: What motivated calls to stigmatize and scapegoat members of their own local communities? Why would local leaders deliberately attract negative attention to their already beleaguered districts, thereby further perpetuating negative stereotypes regarding the debasement of inner-city culture? Where were the progressive voices calling for moderate, rational, public health responses?
In earlier posts, I have begun to explain this reaction through the lens of black-lash. Much like working class white ethnics before them, working and middle-class blacks responded to what they deemed destructive and dangerous changes to their neighborhood and organized in efforts for reform to “take back their streets”. Steeped in the language of victimhood and citizenship, these local activists made battles over crime and drugs battles of good versus evil. The war against pushers, panhandlers, pimps and hoodlums would be about protecting the decent, innocent citizens held captive in their own neighborhoods. Finally, black-lash—much like white backlash—came to be motivated in part by a perceived threat to group progress. Working and middle class blacks viewed youth and street culture manifested by the drug trade as a clear threat to gains made under the Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, the use of the term black-lash has given me some pause for two reasons. First, black-lash is less clearly and directly motivated by race. The increasing significance of class in the post civil rights era makes such a term less useful. More significantly, black-lash is not unique to the Crack Era. The new work of Michael Javen Fortner clearly suggests that such sentiment existed in the 1970s as Harlemites fought vociferously against the increasing presence of heroin and crime in their neighborhoods. This suggests that black-lash existed less as a reactionary impulse, and more as an enduring, but understudied class fissure within the black community. With that said, let’s take a closer look at the roots of black-lash in the late 1960s and early 1970s to better assess the utility of the term “black-lash” as an explanatory tool.