Friday, September 30, 2005

Eyes on the Prize

Noted moral maven Bill Bennett has raised a bit of a stir when he claimed that a way to lower crime rates would be to abort all black children. To be fair, he quickly added that this would be "morally reprehensible." However, he and his defenders (who, at the moment, does not include the Bush administration) state that the comments are perfectly acceptable because on sociological grounds (blacks do commit a disproportionate amount of crime), he's accurate. Does this get him off the hook?

I'm not sure it does, and inadvertently, it's James Joyner's defense that explains why. He writes:
Even aside from the genocide issue, that blacks (or the young, or the poor, or white males, for that matter) commit crimes at a statistically significant higher rate than the population as a whole is incontrovertible.

The emphasis is my own. Now, I find it at least somewhat amusing to read the phrase "aside from the genocide issue"--as if this is some minor thing we can just table for later. When Bennett assures that he doesn't actually want to kill all black people (because that would be very, very, wrong), it still has the subtext of "but the world would be better off if we could. Damn deontological ethics!"

But that's not where my real critique comes from. It's in Mr. Joyner's admission that Bennett's comments could equally be applied to killing all white males, young people, or poor people. Yet, I cannot imagine anyone ever even doing the "one step forward, one step back" tango Bennett did with regards to any of those groups. In other words, when we discuss "groups that commit a disproportionately high amount of crime," it always, immediately, and solely translates to "black people," even though many groups fit the description. Why is that so? What are the implications?

This is why the "statistically, he's in the clear" argument doesn't cut it for me. I'll just ignore for now the problems in general that exist with statistic-based arguments (you can get at least some of them here). If we made these statistical arguments uniformly and neutrally, it might not be so bad. But there is no attempt at equity here--other groups which could as easily fit inside Bennett's statistics are left out, and only blacks are put in. This creates a distorted social perception of black criminality--a conception which helps reaffirm and reify racist mentalities. It's like finding 30 drug dealers, half white and half black, releasing the white ones, charging the black ones under our (draconian) drug laws, and then defending it all by saying "well, they're guilty aren't they?" That's obviously a relevant consideration, but it isn't the only one, and reducing the argument to "well, they really do commit crimes (really are guilty)" excludes some very important issues critical to the debate. And unfortunately, nobody defending the remarks addresses it.

Ironically though, I am actually hearing a fair few people say that Bennett's remarks are equivalent to saying the same thing about poor people or white males--the argument that, as I note above, has never actually been made independent of defending folks like Bennett. I thus say "ironic" because the folks employing it act as if that argument is made all the time to moral silence, and we're somehow being hypocritical by only making the condemnation when the topic is race. But of course, this is exactly opposite of what happens: the only time the meta-argument is made is in this (racial) context, and the only time the particular cross-application to white males or young people occurs is when defenders assert the argument's racial neutrality by proclaiming that, in some fantasy-land, the argument is made all the time with a variety of multi-racial targets. It just isn't true.

I should note that the one defense, Brad DeLong's, partially gets out of this. He asserts that Bennett's overall point was a critique of ends-based analysis by pointing out that it leads to all manner of bad things. I don't think this entirely gets him off the hook (since it implies that the benefits of aborting all black babies via lowered crime rates outweighs the costs of, well, massive genocide), but it is a superior argument to the simplistic "it's true" claim. It just so happens that he's the only man making it--the blogosphere as a whole is not being quite as sophisticated.

Protein Wisdom also tries to address a version of my argument--but I don't think he quite gets it (to be fair, he posted before I wrote all of this, so we can't really blame him). I'm always pleased to be chatting with PW, since they are among the few conservatives with a real grasp of post-modernism. They write the following:
the idea that Bennett's words are still his beyond his intent to use them in a certain way--which simply echoes the old Judith Butler axiom that "actions continue to act after the intentional subject has announced its completion," which, while true, is nevertheless incidental, and becomes dangerous as an assertion when interpretation is released from the ground of appealing back to the speaker's intent. That is, what is at stake here is the role the subject plays in the "meaning" of the act vs. the role played by contingency in giving that act its (subsequent) meaning(s)--or, to put it more specifically, what William Bennett meant vs. what his words can be made to look like they might mean by those in whose interests it is to damage him. In short, they are taking ownership of his words, resignifying them, then using that resignification to taint Bennett with the charge of racism.

Let's start out by dealing with the question of whether Bennett is "racist." I do not think he is racist in the sense that he overtly dislikes blacks qua blacks--nor do I think that these comments undermine that (again though, his comparative weight between "no more blacks" and "less crime"--putting the latter as an outweighing positive--is troubling in that respect). So in this respect, I think it would be better to call Bennett's remarks "racially insensitive" rather than labeling himself racist. However, PW overstates it's case. The racial impact of Bennett's argument does not just kick in when the statement is distorted or taken out of context by those who wish to damage him. As my above argument shows, the racial impact flows even when Bennett is taken completely in context, because it portrays black criminality inequitably compared to other equivalent social groups; more specifically, that in doing so, it reifies the prevailing social attitude that blacks are different vis a vis these other groups even though they're not. So in this respect, this argument still is a morally wrong one to make in the racial context. The secondary question, on whether Bennett can be held morally liable for these problems, also goes against him. While I am willing to concede that Bennett did not intend a racist statement, intention cannot be the only factor at stake here. Bennett has to be mindful of the context his remarks are operating in--not just how partisans might distort them, but also how they might be damaging even in their "real" context. To not do so is negligent on his part and can be condemned (though obviously to a lesser degree than if he had been actively trying to cause the harm).

Finally, perhaps the most interesting response I've read is by Paul Butler, who argues that we as a society basically are "eliminating" the entire black population, we're just waiting a bit longer to do it.
When I was a student at Harvard Law School, my criminal law professor told us he knew of a sure way to reduce the crime rate. Every young man could be incarcerated. If that was too much, he said, another way would be to incarcerate every young black man. In a limited sense, our criminal justice system has selected Option # 2.
Even if marginally effective, mass incarceration and abortion are immoral if their only purpose is to lower crime. Mass incarceration is also an inefficient way of achieving this end. It is like amputating a leg to heal a broken toe.

Our criminal justice system is structured such that it incarcerates a huge portion of young black men. It is true that this is better than killing them off. But in a way, it's achieving the same goal--in order to reduce crime in our society, we're trying to remove as many black people as possible. And it's interesting that while killing blacks is seen as beyond the pale by nearly everyone, this alternative mechanism for removing blacks from American society provokes (at best) a severe partisan split.

Again, one can make the "but they actually are criminals" response, and again, it doesn't fly. Although young black men commit a disproportionate amount of crime, they are also arrested disproportionate to the amount crime they commit. We also punish "black" crime more harshly than white crime, both in terms of giving lengthier sentences to crimes associated with the black community (the crack/powder cocaine example serves here), and in giving harder sentences to the average black offender versus white offender convicted of the same crime. Again, the equity argument comes into play here--while there always will be some people getting heavier sentences and some people getting lighter sentences, and some people getting arrested and others not caught, the point and problem is that these effects aren't randomly distributed, but concentrated to the advantage of white people and disadvantage of black people. That's the problem being critiqued here.


Cobb said...

You say that intention cannot be the only factor at stake here. And that Bennett has to be mindful of the context his remarks are operating in--not just how partisans might distort them, but also how they might be damaging even in their "real" context.

Yet they are only words, and not action. They are not even words of advice much less incitement. Is that consistent with your defense of the poor schlub who used the word 'niggardly', or did you find him equally reprehensible?

Intention has to be the only factor at stake when it comes to this context. That is unless we are going to assign some measure of punishment in the universe of justice to the odd malaprop. When you've categorized a host of real injustices done to young black men as the moral backbone of the seriousness with which you address this issue, how are we to put that in perspective with the unintended consequences of an off the cuff remark by a radio blowhard? If you had a scale of racist offense it would have to be logarithmic, with false arrest and false imprisonment several orders of magnitude above racial profiling. With that in the middle at five, Bennett's offense must be way down near zero.

Anonymous said...

If someone can't even make a philosophical, reductio ad absurdum argument on a talk radio show if it involves race, then this country is not going to be having a "national dialogue on race" anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Naturally, The political left takes these comments out of context in true "Michael Moore" fashion, as they serve to promote their continued "picking at the scabs" of the racial divide.

It honestly scares me that so many people are so intellectually slow that they can't even grasp the gist of the conversation as it unfolded, and in the manner in which it was intended.

Randomscrub said...

David, the moral bankruptcy of aborting black babies was not simply an "addition," as you seem to think, an addition or concession on his part - it was the point! He was performing a reductio ad absurdum on utilitarian reasons for (or against) abortion.

You can find the quote and audio clip here:

I think you'll agree with me that all the flak he's taking is unfair, since his very argument was to point out how morally ridiculous purely utilitarian arguments can be.

David Schraub said...

Y'all are missing the point. I made two claims:
1) The example he chose to make his point wasn't morally neutral even though it was factually accurate b/c of the inequity in how we present comparable persons.

2) The teleology critique only make sense IF Bennett believes that the pure consequentialist gain of a reduced crime rate outweighs the consequentialist loss of no more black persons. Otherwise, I could defend ends-based analysis by saying "no--the ends of destroying a whole set of people is far worse than the benefit of reduced crime." Bennett operates on the assumption that teleologically, that isn't true.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is what the liberals sit around pining for. A gotch-ya moment.
I did listen to the clip and it seemed obvious that the man did step in some do-do, knew he did and tried to recover from it, unsuccessfully. So what? Now, do we see the man revealed for what he really is, a later day Adolph Hitler?
Have you ever said any thing stupid? We all have moments of rhetorical screw ups. But don’t expect the libs to understand. This looking for opportunities to nail the opponent with charges of thought crime is just a substitute for a truth seeking and honest dialogue in the search of solutions to real problems.
Of course aborting all black babies would reduce the crime rate. In fact killing all babies would reduce juvenile delinquency to zero. That doesn’t make it a workable idea. Anyone who says such a thing is making a silly statement. The proper response is laughter, not a lot of pompous righteous indignation.

Also, a possibly the reason that Bennettt used the example of black abortion as a crime reducer was that it was sited in Freakanomics, which has had some muted public discussion. Therefore it might have come to mind as Bennett searched for an answer to the caller’s question. Knee jerk accusations of racism are as culturally ingrained as racism itself, don’t you see.
For example the following statements you made may be either as true or false. Even if true the explanatory reason of racism may or may not be true. I don’t think your statements blaming every thing on harsher enforcement are entirely verified.

“Although young black men commit a disproportionate amount of crime, they are also arrested disproportionate to the amount crime they commit. We also punish "black" crime more harshly than white crime, both in terms of giving lengthier sentences to crimes associated with the black community (the crack/powder cocaine example serves here), and in giving harder sentences to the average black offender versus white offender convicted of the same crime.”

A culture that fails to provide children socialization by an intact community, and family, the absence of proper male role models and disciplinarians, the presence of domestic and street violence, substance abuse and lack of parental expectations, lack of support for law enforcement authorities, poverty, recruitment by gangs, pervasive anti- intellectualism and other factors could be more potent than excessive law enforcement in the high incarceration rate of the black underclass.