Prof. Michael Fortner: Inspiring a spirited, intellectual environment
It wasn’t long after joining the government department at Claremont McKenna in 2021, that Prof. Michael Fortner formed an indelible impression of CMC students.
“They’re intellectually curious,” said Fortner, who is teaching “Introduction to American Politics” and “Race and Politics” this spring semester. “They stop by my office to talk about the class material and to pick my brain. They’re incredible.”
To illustrate, Fortner sets the scene, reflecting on the very first minutes of his initial office hours at CMC. He had just moved across the country, from New York, where he taught at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.
“I’m feeling slightly nervous,” he recalled. “I’m in a new place, with my door slightly ajar. And, the door slowly opens and I say to myself, ‘Michael, it’s about to start. Your new gig. Get it right.’ And this student I don’t recognize from my class, walks in through the door, and she quickly said, ‘You don’t know me, but I just came here to talk to you because I heard you were here and I find your research interesting, and I want to know more.’”
Fortner’s scholarly research fuels his prolific publishing — articles that explore crime and criminal justice, inequality and public policy, and race and ethnicity, among his areas of expertise. He’s also taken to the pages of The New York Times, where he’s published opinion essays analyzing timely subjects, such as sustainable police reform.
Prior to joining CMC, Fortner’s acclaimed book, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, was published in 2015 by Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Black Silent Majority won the 2016 Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York History from the New York Academy of History, was selected as a 2015 “Editor’s Choice” by The New York Times Book Review, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
While Fortner deploys scholarly research and statistical analysis in his work, he also values lived experience. “For example, if we’re talking about the effect of poverty on communities, the ‘lived experience’ refers to not just the numbers, the statistics, but how people themselves understand their lives in relationship to their environment, what poverty means tangibly,” he explained.
Fortner described how his own lived experience deepened his book, Black Silent Majority, which is an examination of “African Americans in New York City in the 1960s and early 70s, and the role they played in the development of punitive policies in New York State.”
“The argument was that part of the problem that we face with mass incarceration isn’t just sort of the history of racism, per se, but it’s also about how people deal with crime. You get moments when crime was extremely high, and people of color mobilized for greater public safety and that had the effect of creating a political environment that was conducive to more punishment, and not necessarily conducive to other kinds of remedies for the problem,” he continued.
“And I got to that subject because of my own personal experience. I was born in Brooklyn, New York. And lived there during the 80s and experienced the crack epidemic and crime. One of my brothers was actually murdered in the streets of New York, and another spent most of my childhood in prison. And so, for me, it was a lived experience of both dealing with violence and also dealing with jails, punishment, and policing.”
This lived experience provides Fortner with “unique insight on the problem of crime and punishment in American society. And so, I get it — while the book isn’t about me — I think my lived experience from the 80s in New York City with my family helped me understand things that other people may not have been able to understand.”
While Fortner grew up in Brooklyn, he spent his high school years at Phillips Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, where he was introduced to spirited debates, an intellectual environment — one which he strives to replicate in his own classroom at CMC.
From Phillips Academy, Fortner headed to Emory University, where he earned a B.A. cum laude in political science and African-American Studies, then to Harvard, where he earned an M.A. in government and a Ph.D. in government and social policy.
As he worked on his dissertation at Harvard, he read about mass incarceration, including books such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. “‘This is insightful and important,’” he recalled thinking. “‘But it’s missing something.’ And so, I started to do research on the development of the Rockefeller drug laws in order to see whether or not my intuition about the complexity of crime, politics, and the inner city was right.”
(Spoiler alert: Fortner said his intuition turned out to be correct. His book, Black Silent Majority, was the result of that research. In addition, Fortner recently published, “From Nelson Rockefeller to Eric Adams: The Evolving Politics of Crime and Punishment in New York,” a research report based on his findings within the Rockefeller archives.)
In progress, are two book manuscripts, United We Fall: Race, Place, and Identity Politics in New York and City and Crack: A Tragedy in Three Acts, for which Fortner will expand his focus to include Los Angeles policing.
A faculty advisor at the Rose Institute and the Salvatori Center, Fortner frequently collaborates with CMC students on research projects, such as the recently published essay, “Crime, the Dangers of Racial Tropes, and the Limits of Racial Metaphors,” with Colin Scanlon ’25. “They have such superb skills,” he said of his student collaborators. “It’s been a pleasure to work with them.” In addition, Fortner serves as director of CMC’s Dreier Roundtable, a multidisciplinary public policy program that promotes direct student engagement in public affairs.
In the classroom, he refrains from sharing too much about his personal point-of-view with his students. “I’ve become famous for students not being able to figure out what my politics actually are,” he said. “And that’s critically important to me. I’ll have class discussions, and I'll push them from both sides of an issue, but never explicitly insert myself and my own politics into the conversation.”
When asked to define the CMC community, he answered, “It’s defined by intellectual and ideological pluralism. What I love about being here is that you don’t need to be anything ideologically or politically. You just need to be a great scholar and a great teacher. I’ve been astounded by the emphasis in faculty meetings and in conversation with colleagues, just how much we all care about the instruction and experience we provide … and being part of a community that feels obligated to both ideas and to each other.”
Since day one, Fortner has kept his office door open, and students feel comfortable, for instance, popping in to share that the sign ups had opened for Cornel West’s Athenaeum discussion.
Further, he shared, “I feel really fortunate to have students of color to stop by and talk. It’s been a pleasure to support them as much as I can. I also have students from across the ideological spectrum. Conservative students show up at my door and want to chat and want to get my thoughts on what’s happening on campus or in politics. And so, it’s been amazing just being able to be a resource for such incredible young people and to hear them, and see them.”