One of the problems about having an adult discussion about Bill Bennett’s recent race remarks is that we simply don’t have the words with which to conduct it.
And so, when former Reagan administration secretary of education and current self-appointed morals master of America Bill Bennett said on his recent radio broadcast that “if you wanted to reduce crime, you could … abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down,” many critics threw the terms “racist” and “racism” at him, having no better ammunition in their arsenal.
Bruce S. Gordon, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, issued a statement saying that “Bennett should apologize for racist comments made yesterday on his call-in radio show.” And in a letter to the president of the Salem Radio Network of Irving, Texas which carries the Bennett radio program, Michigan Congressmember John Conyers wrote that “we simply cannot countenance statements and shows that are replete with racism, stereotyping, and profiling.”
Mr. Gordon and Mr. Conyers made some of the more polite entries in the dialogue that followed Mr. Bennett’s remarks. Underneath that, in blog exchanges and newspaper columns and radio commentaries, the two sides of the country’s major right-left political split went at it, each side accusing the other of being the most “racist.” Some conservatives, for example, accused the white liberal-left of “racism” for supporting abortion of African-American babies, a practice these critics suggested amounted to black genocide.
The confusion comes in part from the fact that both “racist” and “racism” are terribly flawed terms, so flawed, in fact, that we ought to simply throw them out and start all over again with new ones.
A first major problem is that for many people, the meaning of “racist” and “racism” were forever frozen on that summer Sunday morning at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in September of 1963 when members of a Ku Klux Klan splinter group placed a box of dynamite underneath the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, causing the horrific explosion that killed four black girls—Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins—and wounded 23 other African-American worshippers.
And so, in the mid-’60s, the term “racists” largely became used to describe white people who so hated black people that they would do murder even to innocent young children, just to get rid of us. This set the bar for who was a white “racist” so high that it now becomes almost impossible to fit anyone into it, including, for example, the president, who engineered the suppression of the African-American vote in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, but who clearly does not “hate” African-Americans, since he keeps so many around him.
By the time “racist” and “racism” began breaking out of that exclusive “hate black people” box, we discovered that it had been so broadened that it had now come to be applied by many people to anyone who sought to advocate for their own race to the exclusion of advocating for any other races. That led to the curious phenomenon—unintentionally? intentionally?—that under this new, expanded definition, many more African-Americans are now publicly called “racist” these days than are white people.
I do not know what is in Mr. Bennett’s heart, but there does not appear to be evidence either through word or deed that he hates black people and wishes us dead. In addition, there does not appear to be anything in his record as either a public servant or a private morals advocate suggesting that he seeks to uplift the white race while seeking to hold down all the other races. In addition, it is clear from even the most critical reading of his entire remarks that he never advocated that black children should be aborted (Mr. Bennett, as everyone knows, is adamantly against abortion in all forms, and among any people). He was actually having a conversation with an anti-abortion caller about the various social effects of abortion, and used the “black abortions would lower the crime rate” example to counter the caller’s assertion that abortions over the past several years have removed many potential able-bodied persons from America’s workforce, thus lowering the country’s wealth. To show that he did not advocate the “abort every black person” position, Mr. Bennett went on to say that such mass black abortions “would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do.”
And so, applying the terms “racist” or “racism” to his stated example would seem to be out of place, at least in either of the two ways that most people in this country have come to understand the words.
“Stupid” seems a better term to apply to Mr. Bennett, in not realizing how his words might be interpreted, or misinterpreted. “Self-righteous” might be another, as applied to those people who think they are so morally superior that they are above being accused of baser motives.
One could also call him “wrong.”
Many of Mr. Bennett’s supporters have made the argument that while Bennett never argued for eliminating African-Americans, his assertion that less blacks would mean less crime was essentially correct. “Some identifiable groups, considered as a group, commit crime at a rate that is higher than the national rate,” former federal prosecutor and present columnist Andrew McCarthy wrote in the National Review online. “Blacks are such a group. That is simply a fact. … The 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.”
But the truth of that conclusion is dependent on Mr. McCarthy’s original premise that “some groups commit crime” at a higher rate, and that “blacks are such a group.” That is not a necessarily provable fact. What we do know is that some groups are caught and prosecuted for crime at a higher rate, and that African-Americans are certainly such a group. But to believe that the actual commission of crime in America would go down with the elimination of African-Americans is to believe, for example, that the drug cartels, seeing the elimination of their black b-boy dealers on America’s inner city street corners, would turn in their six-guns to the bartender and start hoeing spuds, as the cattleman Rufus Ryker once facetiously suggested to the gunfighter Shane. More likely, they would simply find other methods of dealership.
But Mr. Bennett’s statement was wrong in another sense; wrong in the sense that it should not have been said, because it allows the subject of black genocide as a way to solve America’s problems to be raised as a topic of discussion. That Mr. Bennett does not believe in such a practice, or that he said immediately afterwards that such a program of black genocide would be “impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible” is not nearly enough. Some things have no business being said by people considered to be “responsible.”
For African-Americans, this is not an issue of being offended; this is an issue of physical survival. In my lifetime, men representing significant and responsible sections of some American communities felt it acceptable to plant bombs in African-American houses of worship, and worse. In another context, African-Americans used to sing a song called “Gone Are The Days.” Gone, yes, but not long enough to feel comfortable about that they might not quickly come back.
Thursday’s New York Times, for example, reports the social aftermath of a fire set last December by young Ku Klux Klan members that destroyed 10 houses and heavily damaged 16 others, most of which were owned by black families in a largely white Charles County, Maryland, D.C. suburban community.
To these like these young Klansmen, the term “racist” properly applies. But for people like Mr. Bennett? As I said, we need to come up with another term.