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Calm down: Bennett's comments on abortion have been taken way out of context

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Calm down: Bennett's comments on abortion have been taken way out of context

October 8, 2005
OtherCulture & Society

Who would have thought that here we would be in 2005 with a prominent white cultural commentator casually suggesting that it might not be such a bad idea to abort all black children?

Or -- who really thinks this is what William Bennett meant last week in a conversation on his radio show?

What happened was that a pro-life caller mentioned studies that tell us that if fewer babies had been aborted after Roe vs. Wade, then there would be more people paying into Social Security today. Mr. Bennett said that he didn't approve of this kind of reasoning because there are too many variables involved -- one of them being whether the children in question would even be living productive lives.

So far, so good. But then, to illustrate his point that linking abortion issues to societal outcomes is dangerous and irresponsible, he said that, technically, aborting all black babies would lower the crime rate.

The outcry from people like Jes! se Jackson, Howard Dean and company makes it sound like Mr. Bennett just up and put this on the table as a policy prescriptive. But all Mr. Bennett was doing was showing the gruesome places that we can end up if we base social policy on simple correlations without thinking about their moral consequences.

He meant the point hypothetically, and he made that crystal clear. He said, explicitly, that aborting black babies would be, as he put it, "ridiculous and morally reprehensible."

The reason Mr. Bennett even linked abortion and crime was the hit book Freakonomics, which makes a case that the reason for the drop in crime in the '90s was the rise in abortions after Roe vs. Wade. The idea is that there were fewer young men prone to criminality coming of age in that decade.

Now, it's true that the book does not make a racial argument. This is what gets a lot of people's dander up -- the idea that Mr. Bennett is "stereotyping" by referring to black people at all. Congressman John Conyers is even calling for Mr. Bennett's suspension on the basis of this.

But to cry "stereotyping" here is to call legions of sociologists liars. Last I checked, a top item on the civil rights agenda was the epidemic of criminality among young black men.

In the '90s, black people were 13 percent of the population but were committing 42 percent of violent crimes. Almost every big city in America has at least one task force of concerned black people dedicated to keeping young black men from falling into life on the streets. Gangsta rappers paint verbal pictures of young black criminals and tell us that this is all society allows them to be -- and many black intellectuals, writers and ordinary folk celebrate them as bards of black America.

We all know that there are plenty of white criminals. We all know that the criminal justice system has its biases. But we also all know that there is a serious disproportion of young black criminals. Whatever we attribute that to, Mr. Bennett is not a racist to refer to the simple fact of it.

Many people are worried about what kinds of thoughts Mr. Bennett's comment might put into white people's heads. I am, too. For black Americans to take an innocent and well-meant sentence out of context and hold it up as a David Duke screensaver makes it look like black Americans are incapable of understanding context. It makes it look like we are incapable of close reasoning.

Policing for racial sensitivity does not do a thing for black people who need help. There are thousands of black people languishing in shelters and ships after a horrific natural catastrophe -- and we're giving someone grief because something he said in passing didn't have a nice ring to it?

Maybe we should redirect our sensitivity. Mr. Bennett, actually, was rejecting a possible defense of his own pro-life position. He was demonstrating thoughtful nuance. I assume that the rest of us, black and white, can too.