Is it morally acceptable to predict the criminal propensity of unborn children based on the color of their skin?
That's what former education secretary and drug czar Bill Bennett did last Wednesday on his radio show. When a caller suggested that legal abortions had depleted the tax base for Social Security, Bennett counseled against such utilitarian arguments. "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," Bennett volunteered. "That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So, these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky."
Some people think Bennett was endorsing the abortion of black babies. Wrong. Read the quote again. He called the idea reprehensible. But he did say, twice, that if you got rid of those babies, the "crime rate would go down."
Is that statement true? Is it acceptable? Here's what Bennett's defenders are saying.
1. Bennett didn't say it. According to the Weekly Standard, "The AP wire blared the headline: 'Bennett: Black Abortions Would Lower Crime,' which was pretty much the polar opposite of what he actually said and believes."
Nope, sorry. Read the quote. That's exactly what he said. Twice.
2. Bennett didn't single out blacks. Here's how Bennett retold the tale on Hannity & Colmes: "I said abortion is invoked in another way; you could make an argument that if you wanted to lower the crime rate—you saw the quote—you could practice abortion in very large numbers. You could do it in the black community; you could do it in other places. ... I said, however, if you were to practice that, widespread abortion in the black community or any other community, it would be ridiculous, impossible, and ... morally reprehensible."
Wrong again. Bennett didn't say you could cut the crime rate by practicing abortion "in other places" or "any other community." He said you could cut it by aborting blacks.
3. Bennett admitted his mistake. John Gibson of Fox News claims that Bennett "says he misspoke. I mean, one of the ways he misspoke is not saying, 'Let's abort every white and black baby, then your crime would go down. It's not just black babies.' "
Misspoke? That's a mighty charitable description. But no, Bennett hasn't admitted even that. Thursday night, CNN asked him whether he owed anyone an apology. He replied, "I don't think I do. I think people who misrepresented my view owe me an apology."
4. Bennett only said the black crime rate was high. On Opinionjournal.com, James Taranto asks, "Yet somehow it's considered invidious to point out that blacks, or black men at any rate, have a higher crime rate than nonblacks?"
Nice try. But Bennett didn't say anything about today's black men. He said crime would go down if you aborted "every black baby."
5. The crime rate of the next black generation can be predicted from this one. Several of my favorite writers have taken this line. Here's Andrew McCarthy in the National Review: "The [black crime] rate being high, it is an unavoidable mathematical reality that if the number of blacks, or of any group whose rate outstripped the national rate, were reduced or eliminated from the national computation, the national rate would go down." NR's Ramesh Ponnuru makes the same point: "Bennett's claim about what would happen to crime rates if, somehow, all black babies were aborted, is nearly incontrovertibly true because it is sadly true that blacks are disproportionately involved in crime." Matthew Yglesias of TPM Café agrees that abortions of black, male, poor, or southern fetuses would reduce the crime rate because "southern people, poor people, black people, and male people have a much greater propensity to commit crime." And Nick Schulz of Tech Central Station writes, "[B]lacks commit a disproportionate share of violent crimes in the United States. ... Given that fact, it's not a monumentally difficult conceptual leap to surmise that if you aborted every black child in the country from here on out (a hideousness that no one is advocating), the crime rate would drop."
Actually, it is a monumental leap. It's a leap from people who have committed crimes to people who haven't even been born. You can't just call such an inference "mathematical" or assert a criminal "propensity" among blacks. You have to explain it. If three apples fall from a tree, the next apple will follow. But if three flipped coins come up heads, you can't predict that the next coin will do the same. Are black babies more like apples or coins? What law of nature entitles Bennett to say he "know[s] that it's true" that aborting them would lower the crime rate?
Taranto says we need to speak frankly about the current black crime rate because it subjects black men to stereotypes. Fair enough. But what do we accomplish by asserting the criminal propensities of today's black babies? Such talk does nothing to lower the crime rate, and it subjects those babies to the same stereotypes as they grow up. Bennett understands the psychological effect of negative assumptions in the context of affirmative action: To suggest that "black young people couldn't get into college unless we gave them points for their race is to be involved in the bigotry of low expectations," he argued two years ago. But when the context is blaming blacks for crime rather than helping them get into college, the bigotry of low expectations escapes both his notice and his lips.
6. The idea of linking crime and abortion to race came from liberals. Bennett implies he got the idea from Slate: "The author of Freakonomics, Steve Levitt, engages the theory that abortion reduces crime, andhe also discusses, as I did, the racial implications of abortion and crime. And he does that in an extended debate on Slate.com."
Sorry, wrong again. Here's Levitt's debate in Slate. Paste his comments into a word-processing file and run a search for the word "black." You won't find it. The only person who brings up race in the exchange is Steve Sailer, a conservative Bennett supporter. Levitt shrugs it off, saying "race really is not an integral part of the story." As to Bennett's latest comments, Levitt repeats,
Race is not an important part of the abortion-crime argument. ... [O]nce 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.
Sailer and Taranto point out that four years ago, Levitt mentioned the black crime rate in a paragraph deep in a 67-page article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Please. The probability that Bennett ever read this article is zero.
So, where did Bennett get the idea? Gibson blames "all those arguments white liberals have with white conservatives about abortion, in which the white liberal eventually defends his pro-abortion position by saying, 'Well, they'll just grow up poor and be criminals anyway.' " Really? I've heard a lot of white liberals talk about abortion, and I've never heard one of them say that.
If liberals aren't saying it, who is? Follow the clues. Thursday morning, Bennett said, "These are matters which scholars talk about, which people write books about, which are debated in public policy relations among abortion, crime, and race." Thursday evening, he warned, "There are people who are making draconian proposals about abortion and this and that and the other thing." Friday, he wrote that these issues have been "much debated in the think tank community in Washington." Bennett is a fellow at the Claremont Institute, has been a longtime scholar at the Heritage Foundation, and was a speaker last month at the American Enterprise Institute. Do the math.
It's painful to watch conservative writers sanitize Bennett's remarks. He "did not suggest that [the black crime rate] is high because of something immanent in the black condition," McCarthy argues. "He was merely dealing with life as we find it. And that, of course, holds forever open the possibility that if the conditions inducing people to behave a particular way were changed, their behavior, too, would change." If only Bennett had said that. If only he had confined his comments to the crime rate as we find it, leaving open the possibility that the next generation of blacks might differ from the last. But that's exactly the possibility he foreclosed. Shame on him.