Race and Reproduction

By Crispin Sartwell


The White House rarely upbraids conservative radio talk show hosts. But the administration blasted former education secretary, drug czar, and virtue maven William Bennett when he said,  "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."

    He added that this would be "impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible." Nevertheless, one detected the slight whiff of...genocide, or at least eugenics.

    But this scent, I would say, rises from all parts of the American political spectrum. The remarks, and the small firestorm that followed, demonstrate the contradictions lurking within the histories of both the white American left and the white American right: the high-flown rhetoric of freedom and equality; the actual procedures of racism.

   The Centers for Disease Control maintains statistics on abortions, and they report, as of 2000, "The abortion ratio for black women (503 per 1,000 live births) was 3.0 times the ratio for white women (167 per 1,000 live births).

    If, that is, Bennett's statement raises the specter of racial annihilation, as some liberal commentators have suggested, then perhaps so does the reality of the situation.

    But these same liberal commentators should ponder the fact that this set of statistics is compatible with pro-abortion arguments. When abortion-rights proponents argue that every baby should be a wanted baby, that every baby should be born into a family that can afford to raise it, they are saying that it would be good, for example, if abortion rates were higher among the poor - who are disproportionately black - than among the middle class or the wealthy.

    This, they have argued for decades, would have good social effects. In that case they should readily embrace the argument of the mathematician Steven Levitt - whose views Bennett was discussing - that increased abortion rates correlate with reduced crime. Such a correlation would richly confirm a tradition of pro-choice arguments.

    Throughout its history, feminist advocacy of birth control and abortion has had a eugenic sub-text. This was certainly true of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, for example, who at times even advocated compulsory sterilization for women whose genetics or reproductive practices she found objectionable.

    People on the left and the right have suggested mandatory contraceptive patches and the like for teenage mothers, who are, again, disproportionately black.

    So the American right also has its eugenicists and its advocates of social transformation through control of reproduction. William Bennett's wife Elayne is the founder of the Best Friends Foundation, which targets inner-city (largely black) children for "abstinence education." The largest efforts have been in the overwhelmingly black DC public school system.

     One might describe this program as an attempt to persuade black people not to reproduce.

     It would be ironic for the American right if mandatory sentencing laws, community policing, the war on drugs, and extremely high incarceration rates were irrelevant to crime rates, which instead responded to abortion on demand and specifically to government funding for abortions among the poor.

     Of course, imprisonment itself is a de facto eugenics program, and if black women have three times the abortion rate of white women, black men have perhaps six times the incarceration rate of white men. According to Human Rights Watch in a study published in 2002, 378 out of 100,000 white Americans were incarcerated, and 2489 out of 100,000 blacks. Incarceration, one would expect, limits reproductive opportunities.

   Conservatives might simply take this confirm Bennett's monstrous moment. Incarceration rates correspond to crime rates. Reduce the number of black people: reduce the crime rate. In any case, the actual law enforcement practices endorsed by conservatives - which often have included racial profiling for various purposes - can be expected to have eugenic effects.

   When you get down to it, this country is run by wealthy white people. Whether they are liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, they share a fundamental creed: people like us should reproduce; people like you should not.