Saturday, October 01, 2005

MARK TWAIN SAID, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

Twain's observation is as true now as it was then.

Take the way many bloggers and media commentators have chosen to defend Bill Bennett from charges of making racist remarks. A caller on Bennett's radio talk show suggested that if all the abortions over the past 30 years had not happened, Social Security would be solvent; and Bennett replied:

"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."

and then added:

...aborting all African-American babies "would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do," then added again, "but the crime rate would go down."

This statement caused an uproar, which left Bennett's supporters scratching their heads:

Bennett remarked: "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." Was he suggesting such a thing? Was he saying that such a thing should even be considered in the real world? Of course not. His whole point was that such considerations are patently absurd, and thus he was quick to add: "That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do."

Bennett's position, clearly and irrefutably, is that you cannot have tunnel vision, especially on something as emotionally charged as abortion, in addressing multifaceted problems. It is almost always the case that problems, even serious ones, could be minimized or eliminated if you were willing to entertain severe solutions. Such solutions, though, are morally and ethically unacceptable, whatever the validity of their logic. The lesson to be drawn is not that we can hypothetically conceive of the severe solutions but that we resolutely reject them because of our moral core.

In short, Bennett's defenders think that Bennett is being condemned for suggesting that aborting all black babies would be a good solution to the crime problem. Which bothers them, because, for goodness sake, Bennett did not suggest any such thing; he rejected aborting all black babies as a solution to the crime problem!

But that is not why Bennett is being criticized. He is being criticized because he said that crime is connected to being black. He is being criticized because he takes it as an unarguable truth that blacks have a greater propensity for criminal activity than whites.

Armando at Daily Kos is dismayed that even some liberal bloggers are unable to grasp this distinction:

Two good intelligent Center Left bloggers, Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias, have stated that, in essence, there is nothing wrong with what Bill Bennett said about aborting the pregnancies of all black women reducing the crime rate. DeLong simply misses the point - arguing that Bennett was not calling for such a measure. I don't think anyone sensible thought he was. Of course the real issue was the correlation of African Americans with criminal propensities.

The reality is, of course, that black skin does not confer any increased tendency to commit violent crime, as Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, reiterated after Bennett made his remarks:

It is true that, on average, crime involvement in the U.S. is higher among blacks than whites. Importantly, however, once you control for income, the likelihood of growing up in a female-headed household, having a teenage mother, and how urban the environment is, the importance of race disappears for all crimes except homicide. (The homicide gap is partly explained by crack markets). In other words, 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.

Armando at DK continues:

Let's assume that Bennett made his statement with the purest of hearts. Let's further assume that what Bennett meant was, given current social conditions for African-Americans, the crime statistics of today will persist, and that in no way did Bennett intend to suggest that African-Americans have a higher propensity to criminal behavior.

So here's my question -- how do Yglesias and DeLong expect African-Americans to react to Bennett's statement? Are they to automatically make the assumptions that I must believe Yglesias implies we should assume? Would Yglesias at least grant that Bennett's choice of examples was unfortunate, apt to cause consternation and hurt among African-Americans? Would Yglesias at least concede that the statement was insensitive?

Good question, especially given the long history of the perceived link between violent crime and blacks, and the way black people have suffered because of it. The belief that blacks are inherently more violent than whites goes back to slavery days, when white slave owners, terrified of slave rebellions, which were far more common than most people today realize, instituted harsh systems of management and control that they hoped would deter slaves from revolting or trying to escape. A psychological analysis would say that, on a largely unconscious level, whites understood the enormity of the crime they had committed upon blacks by enslaving them. That guilt had to be displaced somehow, and that was how the idea of black criminality developed.

Unfortunately, the attitudes and beliefs forged by 250 years of slavery did not end in 1865, when the North won the war and Lincoln freed the slaves. The doctrine of white supremacy, enforced through systematic and organized terrorism against blacks, was in many ways a continuation of slavery. The vicious and dehumanizing Jim Crow laws regulating African-Americans' behavior were effectively a continuation of the slave codes [click Cancel at password prompt] used to enforce and maintain slavery before the Civil War.

In case you're wondering where I'm going with this, here it is: White stereotypes about blacks, their fears of black violence, and the centuries of containing and punishing that supposed propensity for violence, affects the way law enforcement and our justice system treats blacks even today. This may come as a shock to some, but 250 years of legal slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow did not suddenly recede like the ocean at low tide and reveal a wonderland of color-blind law enforcement and justice. African-Americans may not have to fear being whipped, or sold, or lynched anymore, and the days of crosses burning in front of churches and houses may be mostly gone, but black people are still more likely to be arrested, convicted, incarcerated, and executed for the same or very similar crimes than are white people. And, along with that, the (absolutely false) belief that blacks have a higher propensity for criminal behavior than whites has attained the status of "statistically and logically unassailable" truth.

Perhaps Bill Bennett and his admirers might chew on that for a while.


John McAdams said...

Planned Parenthood Advocates Abortion to Reduce Crime

And the bizarre thing is that Bennett, who explicitly rejects abortion, is under attack.

Kathy said...

And the bizarre thing is that Bennett, who explicitly rejects abortion, is under attack.

He's under attack for his comments about blacks being criminals, not for his comments about abortion.