Bennett owes clarification, if not apology

October 04, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Memo to William J. Bennett: Ah, Bill, you really put your foot in it this time.

I'm not mad at you, Bill. Just disappointed. If anyone should be agile enough by now to dance across the minefields of political correctness without detonating his own behind, it is you.

So imagine my surprise when I heard about your unfortunate juxtaposition of "black babies," "abortion" and "crime reduction" on your Salem Radio Network talk show.

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

On your Wednesday show, you were addressing a caller's well-meaning but somewhat goofy suggestion that the "lost revenue from the people who have been aborted in the last 30 years" might have been enough to preserve Social Security's solvency. You responded sensibly enough. Of all the arguments that one might have against abortion, you pointed out, the caller had offered one of the weakest, so weak that it could backfire into a justification for abortion.

But, then, throwing whatever caution you might have had to the wind, you proposed a hypothetical of your own: "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. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down."

Yup, that's where you stepped in it, Bill.

Having read you and talked to you and jousted with you on other talk shows, I give you the benefit of my doubt. I am sure you thought you were arguing against eugenics, yet it came out sounding like an argument for genocide.

Before sundown, your words were posted on the liberal and ever-vigilant Media Matters for America Web site and denounced by civil rights leaders, the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic Party leaders and the Bush White House. Tarring and feathering looked like a real possibility.

But I'm not joining them, Bill, and it's not just because I like you.

After all, you started off reasonably enough by citing the best-selling book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and Stephen J. Dubner, a New York writer. The states that had the highest abortion rates in the 1970s, after abortion was legalized, also had the highest drop in crime in the 1990s, Mr. Levitt found. But Mr. Levitt did not mention race, Bill. Imagine how much confusion you could have avoided had you said "poor" or "low-income" instead of "black."

Hardly anyone gets angry at the suggestion that poor people, especially the male children of low-income single mothers, commit more crimes than rich people do - unless, of course, you're talking about, say, the Enron executives.

Sure, you and I both know that blacks and Hispanics have a higher overall crime rate than whites and Asians in America. But you and I also know that those differences diminish greatly when you compare crime rates across racial lines at the same income level.

As Mr. Levitt explains, responding to your remarks on his Web site : "For most crimes, a white person and a black person who grow up next door to each other with similar incomes and the same family structure would be predicted to have the same crime involvement." Criminality does not come with genes, Bill, it comes with one's values. Having bought your The Book of Virtues for my son about a decade ago, I am confident that you believe that.

Unfortunately, that kid is now discovering at 16 that he's one of the most feared creatures in American cities today - a young black male, through no fault of his own, all because of mass confusion over the fact that most black kids are not criminals.

I hope you can help clear up some of the confusion, Bill, instead of adding to it. I hope you understand why we African-Americans at all levels of achievement grow weary of being portrayed as more lazy, poor, irresponsible and criminal than we really are.

I know you and the pugnacious nature of right-wing talk radio too well to expect an apology. But I hope you understand why so many of us would like to hear one.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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