So now we know that William Bennett, in addition to being a moral crusader with a gambling habit, is a pro-lifer who supports abortion. OK, maybe “supports” is too strong a word. But the conservative commentator did proclaim on his radio show last week that “you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” That would be an “impossible, ridiculous, morally reprehensible thing to do,” Bennett warned his callers. But, he insisted, the strategy would work.
Leaving aside the question of whether Bennett considers eugenics or abortion the greater sin, the statement was so outrageous it hardly deserves a second thought beyond immediate censure. But give the man some credit for his timing: At a moment when Americans are already roiling over the Bush Administration’s racist response to Hurricane Katrina, Bennett managed to turn up the heat. Suddenly sensitized, the White House sought to distance itself from Bennett, a longtime ally who served as Reagan’s Education Secretary and drug czar for Bush Sr., by deeming his comments “not appropriate.”
What’s most striking about this little flap is not the lunacy of Bennett’s remark, recycled as it was from an old theory advanced years ago by Freakonomics author Steven Levitt. Nor is it the speed of the response from the White House, which has been on permanent damage control since Katrina struck. Bennett’s take on race as a key determinant of criminal behavior is so unsettling because it reveals in such stark terms the conservative conflation of poverty and race in America and exposes the racist fears that underlie our criminal justice policy.
Look at the opprobrium the right directed at the flood victims and you’ll see these fears on full display. For many conservatives the images of looting and widespread rumors of violent crime (rapes at the Superdome, armed bands of thugs rampaging through the streets) confirmed their sense that residents in these sorts of poor, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods, left to their own devices–that is, without the strong arm of the law to keep them in check–will behave like animals.
“The swiftness of New Orleans’ descent from chaos into barbarism must compound the nation’s nagging anxiety that more irrationality is rampant in the world just now than this nation has the power to subdue,” George Will worried in Newsweek. “First, it was stealing tennis shoes, then it was taking potshots at a helicopter arriving to evacuate people from the Superdome,” National Review editor Rich Lowry reported. “Goons stole a bus from a nursing home and threatened its residents. Rescue workers report that rocks and bottles have been thrown at them and shots fired their way.”