Former Reagan administration education secretary Bill Bennett refused to back down from comments widely criticized as racist.
Bennett, a popular social commentator with the religious right, questioned accuracy of a study that suggested legal abortion had reduced the crime rate by reducing the number of unwanted children Wednesday on his Salem broadcast radio program.
Bennett agreed with his caller that he didn’t think the study was accurate, and then added: “But 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.”
The liberal Media Matters for America Web site transcribed Bennett’s comments. Despite his assertion that his proposition “would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do,” critics decried the comment as inappropriate and called for him to apologize.
“Sin is not a matter of skin,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “Regrettably, one of the religious right’s leading thinkers and spokesmen believes that sinful behavior (crime) results from skin color.
“Such flawed political morality is foreign to authentic Christian morality that recognizes that all have fallen short, that all have sinned, that sin is a universal reality,” Parham said.
Civil rights groups and politicians also criticized Bennett.
“If there’s anyone who doubts that racial insensitivity still plays a role in our society and political culture, they should listen to these appalling remarks by Bill Bennett,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of the People For the American Way Foundation.
Congressman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said the comments were “replete with racism, stereotyping and profiling.” He called for Bennett’s radio program to be suspended.
“In 2005, there is no place for the kind of racist statements made by Bennett,” said Bruce Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi criticized Bennett for “shameful words” in remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives. “Secretary Bennett does not reflect mainstream American values,” said Pelosi, D-Calif. “He did not when he was secretary of education, and he does not now.”
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., introduced a House resolution condemning he what he termed “racist” remarks.
National Urban League President Marc Morial said Bennett’s comments are “revealing and should put into question his value as a social commentator that is afforded media attention.”
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, termed the remarks “not only intolerable but completely irresponsible” and said Bennett’s program should be pulled.
Bennett, a self-avowed values czar, vehemently denied he is a racist, claiming he was merely extrapolating from arguments from the best-selling book Freakonomics. He told ABC News that he brought up race when discussing crime rates because the question of crime and race is on a lot of people’s minds since stories about looting and shooting in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m sorry if people are hurt, I really am,” he said. “But we can’t say this is an area of American life (and) public policy that we’re not allowed to talk about–race and crime.”
Bennett also shot back at critics, which included Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy. “I’ll not take instruction from Teddy Kennedy,” Bennett said, according to the conservative Web site NewsMax.com. “A young woman likely drowned because of his negligence.”
“Bennett voiced what many white conservatives have longed believed about black citizens,” the BCE’s Parham said. “Republicans have often played the black crime card to win elections. It’s shameful. It’s sinful.”
Yet not all criticism came from across party lines. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush believes Bennett’s comments “were not appropriate,” according to the Associated Press.
“Thankfully, at least one Republican recognized and spoke quickly against Bennett’s ideology,” Parham said. “President Bush is to be commended for his remarks.”
Bennett served in both the Reagan and Bush administrations. His radio program, “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America,” airs on about 115 radio stations with an estimated weekly audience of 1.2 million.
Author of The Book of Virtues and other books decrying moral decline in America, Bennett’s image was tarnished somewhat among religious conservatives when media reports in 2003 portrayed him as a high-stakes gambler in casinos who had lost more than $8 million in 10 years.
Bennett eventually said he had gambled too much and was quitting.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.