Thursday, October 06, 2005

In The Middle: Bill Bennett

Phillip Winn, an esteemed colleague of mine over at, and I have started a new column called In The Middle, where we debate topics of the day and try not to hate on each other in the process.

Here's the first one, talking about Mr. Bill Bennett...


From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: Bill Bennett

Let's talk about Bill Bennett. He's in a lot of trouble right now for saying, "'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." People are calling for his head, and it seems to be unpopular to defend the man. After all, he's a "family values" man revealed to be a high-stakes gambler, and he defended that hypocrisy when it was exposed, rather than own up to it. Who wants to defend the racist hypocrite?

Still, I'll stick up for the guy, because it seems like most people aren't reading anything more than the sentence I've quoted, and are missing the entire point of the discussion. Alternatively, they're wanting to impose thought-crime, which is horrifying to me.

What do you think?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

My take is that it was an incredibly silly, inane thing to say and I'm sure Bennett wouldn't say it again (in public) if he had the chance. Very likely it was just a matter of an incredibly poor and impolitic choice of example: stop a segment of the population from reproducing, and the crime rate will drop. Well sure, but the same would be true for white people, residents of Topeka, Kansas, left-handed folk and on and on!

So that's one side. But I'm also sympathetic to those who see a pattern by this administration and its supporters. Is it a pattern of racism? I don't think so, but I could accept the argument of someone who might contend that some of our leaders — particularly those who consider themselves "moral leaders" — are not innately connected to the concerns and of those parts of society that are the neediest and most helpless.

Consider, as another example, Barbara Bush, mother of George W. Bush and former First Lady, on how the victims of Katrina are "making out real well" in Texas. Of course, I believe that everything in American society and public life is and should be viewed through the spectrum of the failures of Katrina.

A catastrophic result of a long standing pattern of neglect of our neediest and most vulnerable citizens?

I think it's a fair question to ask, but leave it to me on any topic and I'm sure to go Big Picture on you sooner or later!

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I agree that Bennett probably wishes he could take it back. But I also wonder if this is another example of over-reaction on the part of those who want to see a pattern of racism in an Administration where it doesn't exist, combined with simple ignorance.

Consider the example a few years ago of the politician who decried his opponents in a budget battle as "niggardly." He was nearly run out of town on a rail by people who simply didn't know what the word meant and jumped to incorrect conclusions about etymology.

Similarly, I wonder how many people attacking Bennett have ever read Freakonomics or know anything about the chapter under discussion by Bennett when he made the remarks. The chapter specifically posits that the crime rate in America has gone down because of the availability of abortion, and that those most likely to seek abortions are the poorest and most likely to have their babies grow up and commit criminal acts. The issue of race is raised within the book! It isn't — as some people are suggesting — the first thing that floated through Bennett's head because he sees everything as a race issue.

Barbara Bush's remarks were even more unwise, both because they were more direct and because of the timing. But I'm bothered about living in a society in which people can't even utter ideas or think thoughts without these attacks pouring in.

Bennett also went on to say that aborting all black babies would be "an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do," and also explained that "immoral policies are wrong because they are wrong, not because of an economic calculation."

Those comments, I think, should be used to help understand the previous comment, but it doesn't seem to matter. Apparently nobody is allowed to think — even when discussing a book that lays out a case on the subject — that anybody other than white people are capable of committing a crime.

By the way, the truth is that the crime rate would rise if you aborted all white babies, because — for whatever reason — black people commit more crimes per capita than white people. I think it is important to recognize that crime in this country has a color, a socio-economic level, a gender, and so on. How can we work to reduce crime if we don't focus on the reasons for it? How can we focus on the reasons for it if we ignore the simply fact that black males are more likely to commit crimes than white males?

If someone not associated with the Bush administration or the Republican party had said the same thing, I don't think there would have been the outcry we've seen. Freakonomics itself suggested much the same thing, and didn't get nearly the same response.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

You raise a great many good and interesting points, Phillip.

Yes, there is likely some truth to an overreaction to Bill Bennett's comments. But I'm glad that you at least imply that his words were, to put it lightly, unwise. And taken out of context — which is the norm in American political life, let's face it — the words "black babies" and "lower crime rate" and "abortion" are downright damning.

And yes, it does matter that these unwise words were uttered by a white, conservative leader who professes to be a pillar of Virtue (when he's not selling his Virtuous tomes or dancing with the one-armed lady).

Why does it matter? Because, as you've very rightly stated, race and class very much do matter in America 2005, even if no one really wants to talk about. As I discussed (as many others have) in my recent piece, "New York, New Orleans, Our Country, and Everything Else," one of the potentially positive upshots from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina is that we can start to have a real dialogue about the most neglected and vulnerable in our society.

Now, in my view, your assertions about black versus white crime rates get us into murky territory. And what I mean by murky is, in no particular order: the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, racial profiling, racism, mandatory sentencing laws for crack (a "black" drug) versus cocaine (a "white" one), police brutality, and on and on.

Do some black people break the law? Absolutely, as do those of other color hues. But I think it's very problematic to assert that, statistically speaking, blacks commit more crimes than whites without entering into a much more detailed and complex conversation.

So there were real scabs that Bennett unwittingly picked at with his unwise and poorly chosen words. And that's why it mattered, again, what Bennett looks like and what he purports to stand for.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

The funny thing about statistics is that they don't lie. People will quote Mark Twain, but the numbers are what the numbers are. The problem is that when we seek to find meaning in statistics, we bring our own biases to the table. That's where the lies come in.

It is no lie to state that black people are implicated as perpetrators in more crimes per capita than white people. That is easily verifiable based on crime reports and arrest records. The questions are what that means for America, and whether that is the most useful statistic when attempting to understand crime. I think that skin color is probably much less of a factor overall than wealth, and the big cities are a big factor, and so on, but I am terrified to think that we've entered into a brave new world in which white people aren't allowed to notice or think about statistically verifiable facts. On a purely factual basis, Bennett's statement was true. On a policy basis, he was arguing against such a policy, whether applied to black babies or anyone else. How then do we find reason to attack him, if not for "thinking wrong thoughts?"

How do we know about problems racial profiling and mandatory sentencing laws for different drugs, except that we can look at the numbers? How is your reference to which drugs are popularly associated with which skin colors that much different from Bennett's observation? If we want to say that only black people can use "the N-word," I can understand that. But to say that a white person can't even engage in non-accusatory public discussion of the premise of a popular book goes beyond the pale, in my view. It's Orwellian thoughtcrime!

Taken out of context, as you say, of course Bennett's statements are damning. Taken out of context, your description of crack cocaine as a "black" drug is also damning. That's why we shouldn't take statements out of context.

We agree that race and class still matter in today's America. We agree that Bennett probably regrets his words. We agree that nobody should view skin color as the only factor when examining America's crime problem.

What I don't understand is the accusation that this is what Bennett was doing, and what bothers me is the implied idea that white people cannot discuss race at all. Bennett (and Levitt and Dubner before him) provided us with a chance to enter into a much more detailed and complex conversation about race and crime and poverty, and instead it seems that partisan politics dictates personal attacks.

What's the point of a detailed and complex conversation if people who hate you because of your skin color or your political party are going to ignore it all and grab the soundbite that makes you look bad anyway?

I started this conversation, so I'll let you have the last word!

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I agree that too often there's a tacit agreement in public discourse to ignore the issue of race. It's easy to enter into this agreement, because talking about race is complicated as hell. Look at the news media – I can think of more than one broadcaster who was fired for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. The result is a chilling effect with regard to this issue, this sticky fact of American life that runs down to the core of our collective history.

This is why race remains such a ripe topic for comedy, and particularly for black comics. From Red Skelton and Richard Pryor to Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, we've looked to comedians and entertainers to allow race to enter the public domain. Great comedy comes from pain, it's been said. And it also comes from truth: comedy helps to let some of the steam out of our self-imposed strictures.

That's why — warts and all — I've always been a champion of radio legend and self-proclaimed King of All Media Howard Stern. By letting kooks and racists on the air, he exposes the very worst of America and provides the forum in which he can examine and laugh at it, and in effect defeat it. When Stern hosts a stupid but funny game like Black Jeopardy (where black contestants answer questions about "black culture") he's really in effect celebrating diversity, instead of partitioning ourselves into race- and culture-based cubicles as often is the case in our politically correct age. As is generally known, black people love Stern; it's a select number of white elites who tend to have a problem with his show.

In any event, I think we do agree in many ways on this story, Phillip. I think Bennett was unwise but not malicious in his choice of words, and I think the reaction was probably too harsh, if understandably so from certain vantage points.

I think race is still a tinderbox issue in America, ready to flare up at any time.

Talking about race in a reasonable and open minded way is a good thing, I think. A good start.

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

No comments: