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.”
It’s no surprise that the Bush Administration, when it finally got around to acknowledging the disaster, called for aggressive militarization, nor that so many right-wingers commended the orders to shoot troublemakers on sight. This response was perfectly in line with Bush’s version of cowboy justice and the more general presumption of black guilt that prevails in some American courtrooms. Members of the media were complicit, too, credulously presenting unsubstantiated claims as fact. And political officials piled on–House speaker Dennis Hastert immediately suggested bulldozing the city, and now Republican senators are blocking proposed legislation to provide refugees with bankruptcy protection and access to Medicaid. This isn’t about blaming the victims; it’s declaring war on them.
The trouble is, the nightmare on Canal Street didn’t quite correspond with reality. A month after the levees broke, we are beginning to assemble a clearer picture of what happened in the aftermath of the hurricane. By now, most of the early reports have been debunked as a Hobbesian fantasy of total disorder in the absence of an authoritarian state. Last Thursday, the same day Bennett expounded his mad social science, the New York Times published an investigative article with the headline “Fears Exceeded Crime’s Reality in New Orleans.”
Looting of nonessentials did indeed take place when public order broke down, but extensive interviews with evacuees, police officers, city officials and medical experts revealed that the rumors of violent crime were greatly exaggerated. The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a similar piece last week explaining that “few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence.”
If there’s anything to be gained from the overblown reaction to the Katrina looting–a better test case than whatever you could glean from Bennett’s nutty extemporizing–it’s a renewed awareness of the extent to which racial fear governs our attitudes toward crime in America. As long as our justice system adheres to a color-coded interpretation of violent behavior, and as long as draconian policies toward nonviolent offenders stay on the books, black citizens will continue to be regarded as potential threats to public safety, and the number of minorities stuffed into our prisons will continue to rise.