Are babies not equally innocent?

Bill Bennett's statement about blacks and crime shows that we have not yet achieved America's greatest value: Equality.

Published September 30, 2005 5:14PM (EDT)

A baby is a baby is a baby -- or so it seems. The wonder of babies is that they are equally innocent, equally endowed. Not so black babies, if we are to believe family values advocate and former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. He made this pronouncement on his weekly radio show: "I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime ... you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down." He then quickly backpedaled, stating that as "morally reprehensible" as this would be, it would, nevertheless, be effective.

As the editor of an anthology on motherhood by black women writers, I am often asked if all mothers aren't essentially alike. Many people want to believe that some human experiences transcend the boundaries of race and should be treated accordingly: Motherhood is motherhood. Can't we all just get along? I'm not altogether unsympathetic to that view, since, as a society, we hope to move toward seeing each other as equal human beings; our hopes, dreams and struggles as uniting and not dividing us.

Bennett's statement clearly shows why we are not there yet. Black babies come into the world burdened with the prejudice that they will become criminals, probably violent criminals, and that it would be better for America if their lives were cut short. His words give no thought to what it might cost America to lose these black babies -- to what leadership, what innovation, what artistry might be forgone. Every black mother must take note of the fact that this view is still extant; their children are considered by some to be a drag on the bright, boundless promise of America. To some, there is no upside in sustaining or investing in their lives.

Knowing this makes our lives as mothers fraught with worry and suspicion, a radically different experience from those of our white counterparts, no matter how criminally predisposed their babies may be. Criminal tendencies exist, according to Bennett, not in some black babies but in every black baby. Apparently, it would take the elimination of every black baby to decrease the crime rate. There is no succor then for those of us who are blessed with education and income: His words lead inescapably to the conclusion that every black baby is guilty before having taken his or her first, tentative steps in the world of polluting it. Bennett defines the problem of crime in America exclusively in terms of race, not of class or conditions, not of poverty or lack of opportunity; it is not, claims the advocate of traditional values, even a problem of moral choice, to be addressed through religious or ethical instruction. It is purely, simply a matter of race.

Bennett's comment is shocking but revealing, even timely. Until his dethroning for gambling addiction, Bennett was a poster child for the family values movement, which still has tremendous influence in the country and the current Bush administration. Though he should have been completely discredited by his personal failures -- no doubt the consequence of his "mistakes" rather than any genetic deficiency -- he still retains enough credibility to have a radio show, called "Morning in America." Regrettably, some people still listen to this man; you have to wonder how many of his followers remain in government, making policy decisions that impact African-Americans.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, David Remnick explores the conspiracy theories that are circulating in the black community in the wake of disasters that have disproportionately affected them. Well, no wonder. When casual comments by white politicians reveal the extent of their racial biases -- and an intellectual fondness for genocidal notions -- grist is duly added to the mill. There has been among African-Americans a lurking suspicion that the family values movement is not about values but about how some groups, blacks in chief, are morally void, and therefore expendable. Is it any wonder that we postulate, when this view is popularized by conservative leaders, that it might help explain why inner-city schools remain segregated, underfunded breeding grounds for delinquency; why government policies make prisons a better investment than early education programs; why the death penalty, though embattled by DNA evidence, still remains unbowed in many states? And is it so surprising for us to ask whether the racist assumptions of Bennett and men like him were behind the federal government's dilatory rescue of the overwhelmingly black and poor residents of New Orleans?

Black Americans cannot afford to be naive about the far-reaching tentacles of racism in politics, but neither can white Americans. Of the relationship between aborting black children and decreasing crime, Bennett stated that "extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky." Tricky? The truth is that they are irresponsible and dangerous, a threat to the delicate fabric of racial tolerance that has been sewn in the last half-century and an undermining of America's greatest value: equality.

By Cecelie S. Berry

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