Bennett raises a storm


Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett's suggestion on a radio talk show that aborting every black baby in the country would reduce crime has spawned a storm of criticism.

Yesterday, the Bush administration denounced the conservative Republican's remarks.

"The president believes the comments were not appropriate," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. Bennett insisted that he was misunderstood.

But the comment and reactions to it have exposed racial and economic tensions that lie beneath the surface of American life.

Bennett's remark came during a response to a caller discussing abortion on his radio show Morning in America. Bennett referred to Freakonomics, a book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner which in one section states that the nation's declining crime rate can be attributed to an increase in abortions.

Bennett said he didn't know if that was true, then added: "But I do know, that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down."

Bennett, who was education secretary under President Reagan and director of drug control policy during the first Bush presidency, said his comments were a hypothetical that he quickly couched as "impossible."

Democratic leaders leapt on Bennett, a prominent Republican analyst, describing his statement as the latest in a long trail of public comments by white conservatives unfairly linking blacks to crime and sexual promiscuity.

"It again raises the specter of the not-so-subtle politics of race represented by `Willie Horton,' welfare queens and the conclusion that America would be better off if Strom Thurmond had been successful in 1948," said House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.

"I was appalled to hear Secretary William Bennett's insensitive comments regarding abortion, African-Americans and crime," said Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Baltimore branch NAACP President Marvin "Doc" Cheatham said he began receiving phone calls from NAACP members as early as 8 a.m. yesterday.

He called Bennett's radio station in Texas demanding that his show be taken off the air.

"It wasn't simply bigoted, it was racist," he said. "It's clear to me, I don't want an apology. I want him off the air."

The Bennett remark came at a time when the highly visible plight of the African-American victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans has made the public more aware of the connection between race and poverty in America.

Some members of the nation's growing black middle class saw Bennett's sweeping comment as a frustrating reminder of the persistence of racial stereotypes.

"I think what we continue to be struggling within this country is for African-Americans to be seen as truly human and truly understood as citizens," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an assistant political science professor at the University of Chicago whose writings explore American race relations.

"It's depressing to me to think that when people see my little black preschool daughter walking around, people look at her and see a little potential criminal."

"What's interesting is the transition he [Bennett] made from discussing poor people to black people," she said. "In our society, when we use the words criminality or criminal are really code words for talking about race."

In defending himself, Bennett continued to talk about the link between poverty, race and crime.

In a Thursday night interview on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, Bennett said: "The causes of crime are very complicated. But there is a very big literature, as you know, about single parenthood in crime, about race in crime and about poverty in crime. And we've been talking about all these things lately in the context of New Orleans and other things."

Jeffery Ian Ross, a University of Baltimore criminologist, said that minorities are disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system for complex resons.

"What people fail to realize is that individuals who are caught up in the criminal justice system are there because they are powerless," he said.

In White Nationalism, Black Interests, University of Maryland political science professor Ronald Walters argues that public policies on crime and welfare have been based on negative assumptions about blacks.

Drug laws that have laid a heavier penalty on the drug dealers who sell crack rather than cocaine have had the effect of incarcerating black men at a disproportional rate, he said.

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