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.