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Devil's Advocate

Bill Bennett & The Politics of Race

I’ve always admired Bennett,

a frequent political commentator and analyst. So far as Republicans go, Bennett always seemed rather level-headed and rational to me, often flying in the efface of his more extreme right-wing pals anxious to turn back the clock to Ozzie and Harriet and I Like Ike. I’m tempted to refer to Bennett as a moderate, though I suspect he’s more conservative than he comes across, so I’ll stick to my assertion that he’s at least rational. He’s not a mouth-breather like his buddies to the far right. And, now outside the Beltway spin machine, he’s free to part company with political extremists. Which is why Bennett comes across as both thoughtful and rational. Until last week.

Until he got suckered into an absurdist what-if conversation about lost tax revenue due to the number of abortions since Roe v. Wade (which is utterly ridiculous as, even Bennett himself points out, this hypothesis assumes the aborted people would have been productive citizens and not, say, poor or die by some other means). It was the last call of Bennett’s radio show, and a clearly tired Bennett, ready for a weekend of golf or hedge trimming or whatever he does, got taken for a ride by this caller who clearly wanted to beat the dead horse of Roe v. Wade yet again (Republicans: *please* find another issue. The single-note thing is so played now).

This was a call, a show, a moment in time that would have drifted by, unnoticed to the world at large, and Bennett would be on Pebble Beach (or wherever he goes) sipping Margaritas (or whatever he sips) by now. Until, for reasons I’ll never understand, Bennett decided to change his life forever. Bennett veered off into quoting from the new hot statistics book Freakanomics, to say the book posits that crime is down because abortion is up. Absurd? Sure. But Bennett was still on his way to tee-off because he was quoting the book and not suggesting this himself.

But, Bennett took things a step further.

“But I do know that it’s true,” he said, now speaking for himself, “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. That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”

And, just like that, Bennett changed his life forever. For the rest of his life, and forever thereafter, this quote will be stapled to Bennett’s legacy. Even the widest stretch of the most liberal lefty finds it difficult to believe Bennett put those words together in quite that way—even if he didn’t mean any racial bias by them. The hurtful bias was there nonetheless.

White America always seems shocked

when these kinds of idiot eruptions happen, the kind of eruptions peppered throughout Bringing Down The House. But, Black America knows those thoughts, those concepts and ideas, remain unspoken in polite conversation but surely are expressed in private. Bennett’s comments did not shock Black America because Black America has always known racism is alive and well in this country, even among intellectuals and liberals who purport to be our friends.

Racism is a lot like sexism in the sense that a woman knows, instinctively, the difference between a man offering her a genuine compliment and a man acting inappropriately towards her. The difference can be as subtle as an inflection, a feeling, a mood, a vibe if you will. Black people instinctively recognize racism because ever black person in this country suffers from racism every single day of their lives. Not every woman is sexually harassed every day of their lives (but, many are), but every single black person in this country is discriminated against in some subtle way every single day of our lives. It is a sad part of our landscape, this curse of Shem, that we are forced to navigate through daily because, what other choice do we have?

And that’s why I refuse to move. It won’t matter where I move to, racism is there. Hatred is there. At least, twenty years from now when I am their age they’ll all be gone and I can finally have a quiet morning around here. But moving and fleeing oppression is silly because oppression, like fog, moves around and non one can accurately predict where it will go or when it will pop up.

Bennett has suffered angry condemnation and his own conservative buddies, already reeling in horror from the absolute mess of things their party’s leader, President George W. Bush, has made of this country, are scrambling to save their own skins and distancing themselves from Bennett as quickly as possible. Which really isn’t fair. Bennett got sucker punched. It’s fun to jump up and down on the guy, but, in context, I understood the point he was trying to make, but realize this country is far too hypocritically involved in burying racism—as opposed to eliminating it—to deal with comments like his.

In the hours and days that followed, Bennett has been given many opportunities to dig himself out, but he only dug himself in deeper, trying to assert some journalist’s creed or some other nonsense:

“I was putting forward a hypothetical proposition. Put that forward. Examined it. And then said about it that it's morally reprehensible. To recommend abortion of an entire group of people in order to lower your crime rate is morally reprehensible. But this is what happens when you argue that the ends can justify the means,” he told CNN.

"I'm not racist, and I'll put my record up against theirs,” referring to Pelosi and other critics. “I've been a champion of the real civil rights issue of our times — equal educational opportunities for kids.”

“We've got to have candor and talk about these things while we reject wild hypotheses,” Bennett said.

“I don't think people have the right to be angry, if they look at the whole thing. But if they get a selective part of my comment, I can see why they would be angry. If somebody thought I was advocating that, they ought to be angry. I would be angry.”

"But that's not what I advocate.”

Asked if he owed people an apology, Bennett replied, “I don't think I do. I think people who misrepresented my view owe me an apology.”

It’s insane.

When you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging. Bennett’s assertions about an apology are correct in the pristine sense of journalism and ethics. But that's not the world we live in. Our world is one of visceral reaction to the Band-Aids being tugged off of the festering open wound of racism. The reason so many whites—liberals and conservatives—are trying to bury Bennett is it is easier to bury him than it is to deal with the real problem. If racism no longer existed in this country, if this really was the enlightened society we pretend it is, then Bennett’s clumsy banter would have been dismissed as a silly intellectual argument and not a statement of purpose or veiled hatred of blacks.

The reason Bennett will now be castigated is he must now be scapegoated for this great sin of racism, which this country by and large continues to medicate and bandage up while refusing the strong antibiotics of education and enlightenment. The religious right, the Republicans’ strongest allies, whom this president has both played like a fiddle and sold out, is, incongruously, a monolith of intolerance and, yes, racism. It’s far easier for whites to make it to the upper ranks of large black organizations than it is for blacks to achieve much elevation within the major white conservative Christian organizations.

Many of these organizations continue to want to turn the clock back to Stacey Adams and sweater vests, without realizing or perhaps not caring that the “moral” climate of that era and the evoking of the same in turn evokes a visceral response from blacks who, in that fine and bygone era, had to drink from separate faucets, use separate restrooms and sit well behind the sign marked “Colored Section.”

The pasty, smiling, feel-good right-wing Christian conservatives are all about morality, which means they are anti-just about everything. But, worse, their idea of Christian love and fellowship is Christian love and fellowship so long as you do it on their terms. Blacks are welcome but they are, in fact, welcome to assimilate into their culture, as many if not most major right-wing Christian organizations routinely practice the cultural elimination of entire peoples, taking the scripture about “From one flesh…” (Acts 17:26) to mean, everybody should act like them. Everybody should wear sweater vests and behave the “proper” way.

Bennett is the new foster child for racism because kicking him and ruining his life is much easier than dealing with actual racism. In this politically-correct and over-sensitive world, litigating against men who sexually harass women is much easier than simply training boys better so we educate that behavior out of society. Our problem is not Bill Bennett. Our problem is racism. Our problem is that racism is there, and that Queen Latifah’s movie isn’t quite as absurd today as it was yesterday; that whites still think these things even if they don’t say them in polite company. Latifah simply had her characters saying what she believed much of White America actively thinks each and every day.

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Bennett’s blunder was in getting tied up in rhetorical arguments, but his biggest blunder was his saying out loud what many white folks in this country surely believe: that blacks are the major problem with crime in this country. It was a sin of truthfulness; an intellectual getting caught up in his own intellect and assuming the country was further along and better enlightened than it actually is. It was a meaningless, rhetorical, intellectual exercise that Bennett surely should have been allowed to conduct. And, if white liberals and conservatives were truly beyond racial bias, he surely would have. Their stampede to hang him only hammers home the fact racism is alive and well in this country. After all, if it weren’t, so many people wouldn’t be rushing to once again bandage the wound.

Making a scapegoat of Bill Bennett for his perceived racism only makes the job of eradicating actual racism that much harder.

Christopher J. Priest
3 October 2005