Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Bennett bash, cont'd

I thought the brouhaha over the racially charged remarks made by prominent conservative Bill Bennett had died down; but today, Bob Herbert revives it on the New York Times editorial page:

A Republican who served in the Reagan cabinet, Mr. Bennett told his listeners: "I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could - if that were your sole purpose - you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down."

After making the point that exterminating blacks would be a most effective crime-fighting tool, he quickly added, "That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down."

Herbert then concludes that such "racial effrontery" is par for the course for Republicans:

The G.O.P. has happily replaced the Democratic Party as a safe haven for bigotry, racially divisive tactics and strategies and outright anti-black policies. That someone who's been a stalwart of that outfit might muse publicly about the potential benefits of exterminating blacks is not surprising to me at all.
As anyone who has followed the Bennett controversy knows, Herbert takes Bennett's words ridiculously out of context. Bennett was not talking about crime-fighting strategies; he was talking about abortion. He did not dangle what Herbert calls "twisted fantasies" of genocide before his audience to pander to racists, and then backpedal with the "impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible" disclaimer to cover his behind. He specifically invoked the "aborting black babies" scenario as an example of morally reprehensible absurdity -- as an example of why "pragmatic" arguments about the social consequences of abortion should not be invoked to argue either for or against abortion. (Bennett was responding to a caller on his radio show who had said that banning abortion and increasing the birth rate would have solved Social Security's fiscal problems.)

By the way, I think that what Bennett said was stupid, thoughtless and inflammatory. Yes, as a number of commentators have noted, it is an indisputable fact that today, African-Americans, particularly African-American males, commit violent crimes at a substantially higher rate than other groups. (William Saletan, however, makes the interesting point that there is a whiff of bigotry in the assumption that this pattern will continue into the next generation.) This is an emotionally charged topic tied in with issues of racism, stereotyping, fear, mistrust, etc. Unfortunately, as a lot of the discussion on the Bennett controversy demonstrates, quite a few liberals and leftists still prefer to evade this reality with dodges like "blacks don't really commit more crimes, they get arrested and jailed more" (not true -- see National Crime Victimization Surveys on the race of perpetrators as reported by victims), or "the black crime rate is higher because our society's skewed definition of crime leaves out corporate wrongdoing." But this is an issue that needs to be discussed honestly and, yes, sensitively, rather thancasually bandied about and used to prove a point about abortion -- and, worse yet, linked to a hypothetical scenario of aborting black babies to prevent crime. As Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page put it, in a column criticizing Bennett while absolving him of racist or genocidal intent:

Bill, juxtaposing "black babies" and "abortion" is asking for trouble. Throwing in "crime reduction" is asking for trouble in buckets.

Bennett's reckless comments fed into the suspicion, shared by a lot of black Americans, that deep down most whites are racist bigots -- perhaps even racist bigots harboring genocidal fantasies.

Bennett's poor judgment, however, does not justify smearing him as a genocide-fantasizing bigot, which he clearly is not. Nor does it justify using this gaffe to stoke racial division and paranoia (and I might add that while the Bennett-bashing is likely to increase black mistrust of whites, it is also likely, in a paradoxical way, to play to the prejudices of bigots who do see criminality as a black trait).

Several prominent liberal commentators -- Richard Cohen in The Washington Post and the aforementioned Clarence Page in The Chicago Tribune, as well as Brad DeLong, Matthew Yglesias, and Mark Kleiman in the blogosphere -- have come, albeit reluctantly, to Bennett's defense. Bob Herbert, instead, is peddling racial demagoguery.


9 comments:

Dean said...

I'm not so sure that Bennett can be let off the hook so easily. In your own words:

"it is also likely, in a paradoxical way, to play to the prejudices of bigots who do see criminality as a black trait"

Personally, I see nothing paradoxical about it. (Unless you were referring to the Bennett-bashing? It doesn't seem so.) Bennett made the statement and implied that blackness was a factor in the likelihood that a child would grow up to commit crimes. I agree with you that he wasn't saying that aborting them would be a good thing to do, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't more than a whiff of bigotry in his statement.

I believe that studies have shown that poor black people commit crime at about the same rate as poor white people and poor hispanic people and poor every-other-color people, and that crime rate among blacks is actually a measure of the black population's general poverty. But Bennett didn't say that. He said 'black'.

Probably because if you say 'poor' babies, there's a better solution than abortion, and it disallows your argument about abortion.

Therefore, Bennett's argument only works (as distasteful as it is) if you say 'black babies', not 'poor babies'. And that, I maintain, is the statement of a bigot. An unconcious bigot, but a bigot nonetheless.

Gimme Back My Dog said...

'poor babies' would have worked as well as 'black babies'. But what he should have said is 'male babies'. It makes the point as well without raising economic or racial issues.

And men are one of the fifty or so groups that is the last group that it is OK to discriminate against.

Richard Bennett said...

Bill Bennett's statement about the black crime rate is only racist or bigoted if you believe that the facts thmeselves are racist or bigoted.

And come to think of, one of the motivations for Politically Correct speech codes is that very assumption.

And BTW, the murder rate for blacks is higher than for whites, Hispanics, and Asians even when you correct for poverty.

Cathy Young said...

I'm not so sure that Bennett can be let off the hook so easily. In your own words:

"it is also likely, in a paradoxical way, to play to the prejudices of bigots who do see criminality as a black trait"

Personally, I see nothing paradoxical about it. (Unless you were referring to the Bennett-bashing? It doesn't seem so.) Bennett made the statement and implied that blackness was a factor in the likelihood that a child would grow up to commit crimes. I agree with you that he wasn't saying that aborting them would be a good thing to do, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't more than a whiff of bigotry in his statement.


I was just about to say that I agree with you about the whiff of bigotry, but then I thought of another explanation. Could it be that Bennett specifically singled out black babies because he specifically wanted to give an example of a horrible proposition, and making it about "black babies" would make the "crime control through abortion" proposition much worse?

And yes, I do think the Bennett-bashing is likely to bring a lot of bigots out of the woodwork. No one has really questioned Bennett on the facts, and there's been very little if any talk about the non-racial reasons the black crime rate is higher. So I think that this controversy is likely to be read by some people as, "See, blacks really are criminals, it's just considered un-PC to talk about it."

As for the "let's abort male babies" variant: first of all, if you did that, the human race would die out in a generation (or maybe two if you stored a lot of frozen sperm). I wouldn't put much faith in human cloning techniques, as yet.

Secondly, I think it's quite revealing that "let's abort male babies" is considered a more socially acceptable statement than "let's abort black babies."

Wasn't there a book written a few years ago by some feminist, called Men Are Not Cost-Effective?

Anonymous said...

What if Bennett had said, "If you aborted all jews, there would be fewer money-lenders"? I don't know if this is true or not, but if you use an example that conforms to an anti-semitic stereotype, you should explain that you don't believe the stereotype. The same thing applies to a statement about blacks and crime. Bennett should have qualified his statement by noting that he did not believe blacks as a race are disposed to crime.

Bennett's biggest mistake is that he broke a rule of rhetoric: do not use a controversial example.

Dean said...

Could it be that Bennett specifically singled out black babies because he specifically wanted to give an example of a horrible proposition, and making it about "black babies" would make the "crime control through abortion" proposition much worse?

I suppose that could be the case. It's a terrible example in either case, whether Bennett is really at the bottom a bigot or not. I've thought about what you said:

So I think that this controversy is likely to be read by some people as, "See, blacks really are criminals, it's just considered un-PC to talk about it."

Those people are going to believe that anyway. That's why Bennett's example is a terrible one: people disposed to agree with it will, and those opposed aren't going to hear the actual argument being made. 'Aborting black babies' is such a red-cape statement that they aren't going to hear anything else. And indeed that is what happened.

Personally, I think Bennett picked an example on the fly, something he thought his audience would understand, and that's why I think there's a tang of bigotry about it. He chose unwisely, but he still chose, and he chose the example based on a certain shared set of beliefs.

Cathy Young said...

That's why Bennett's example is a terrible one: people disposed to agree with it will, and those opposed aren't going to hear the actual argument being made. 'Aborting black babies' is such a red-cape statement that they aren't going to hear anything else. And indeed that is what happened.

No argument there, Dean!

beAzl said...

Any comments on Bill Bennett's remarks are incomplete without mentioning the underlying reason for him bringing them up. The best seller "Freakonomics" argues that one of the main reasons crime went down in the 90's is because of legalized abortion in the 70's. They argue that unwanted babies are more likely to commit crimes than wanted babies when they become adults.

Since blacks have abortions at a higher rate than whites, it is not difficult to put 2 and 2 together.

See http://www.isteve.com/abortion.htm for a discussion of Bill Bennett's comments in this context (from an Anti-Freakonomics perspective).

I suspect that this thesis, and its policy implications, strike Bill Bennett as morally wrong. If Saletan's argument is right that assuming today's crime statistics will reflect on the next geration of black children has "a whiff of bigotry," then this charge should apply to making assumptions about the next generation of unwanted children as well. So call Freakonomics bigoted as well, perhaps more so, since the book doesn't say anything negative about this "solution" to crime. (If I recall it doesn't make much of a moral statement either way). For the record, I've heard the word "bigotry" hurled around so much, it has become meaningless, and in my mind neither strengthens nor weakens the opinion being discussed.

Clearly the comments backfired on Bennett in the public eye -- I think his intention was to suggest there are some very bad reasons that some people might in fact support abortion, and he had some justification for believing some people support it for those reasons. But the press, being what it is, headlined his comments "Bill Bennet says aborting black babies will reduce crime".

There is a reason thoughtful intellectuals rarely make it as politicians, and why politicians so often speak in pre-packaged, meaningless sound bites. We can thank the media, and the type of people who are pouncing on Bill Bennet based on the media headlines, for that.

Iguana said...

I don't think I would even go as far as to say that Bennett showed poor judgement. Why, the only poor judgement displayed by his comment was relative his own ability to maintain a voice in a ridiculously politically correct society.

With his comment, he was hoping, in fact assuming, to appeal to your intellect. Blacks commit crimes at higher rates than do whites or other ethnic groups. This is just a simple fact. Sure, there are all sorts of socio-economic reasons for that, but the fact remains. Thus, assuming the pattern continue, aborting more black babies should have a measurable impact on reducing crime.

Why do we have to pretend that this is not reality? Yes, it probably hurts the feelings of some people, much like it hurts my feelings when people criticize me, my family, or the place that I live. But, I don't behave as if their statement is evil simply because it hurt my feelings.

This is truly an example of why the US is in decline and increasingly unable to accomplish much. We have ourselves twisted around trying to avoid semantical potholes while pandering to every possible group. It's a formula for never getting anything accomplished.