Roundtable: Bennett's Comments, Roberts Confirmed

Friday's topics: Comments made by U.S. Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson on New Orleans' black population, and radio host Bill Bennett, who said a reduction in crime could hypothetically come by aborting black babies. "That would be an impossibly ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down," Bennett said. The group also considers the confirmation of John Roberts as U.S. Chief Justice. Guests: Callie Crossley, social/cultural commentator on the television show Beat the Press in Boston; George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; and John McWhorter, Manhattan Institute senior fellow in Public Policy.

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ED GORDON, host:

Now we turn our attention to our daily roundtable. We'll continue this discussion and also talk about the Senate confirmation for John Roberts. Joining us from New York, John McWhorter. He's with The Manhattan Institute. He's a senior fellow there of public policy. Callie Crossley, social and cultural commentator on the television show "Beat the Press," which is seen in Boston. She joins us from member station WGBH. And George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, joins us today from Maryland.

We should note a couple of things. "Freakonomics," a best-selling book--we had one of the authors on. It takes a unique look at numbers and cause and effect, and it's a very interesting and different dynamic than often is seen; kind of quirky, if you will, just to get people up to date on what the book is that Bill Bennett was talking about. Bennett said in an interview yesterday that he knows that he is not racist; that he was, in fact, just taking the best-selling book "Freakonomics," the hypothesis put forth, the falling crime rate as related to increased abortion rates a decade ago. We should note this, though. The book does not say, John McWhorter, anything about race.

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (The Manhattan Institute): Oh, of course not. But I think we need to give Bill Bennett a break here. I mean, after all, think about what Professor Butler was saying about how many blacks live in fear of crime. I think we all know that generally, we're talking about black-on-black crime, and we can talk about whether or not young black men are picked up in disproportionate numbers, but nevertheless, even with the conversation with Professor Butler, it was clear that with problems such as the fetishization of being in jail and people learning to be criminals in jail, that obviously we have a problem with actual criminal acts committed disproportionately by young black men. Back in the '90s, the typical statistic was that the 13 percent of black people in the population, 42 percent committing violent crimes.

So this is a problem, and Bill Bennett knows the statistics like these. I think some of us--supposedly some of us would be glad that he would know it, because the supposed sociological bards of our race, the hip-hoppers, are always telling us about the disproportionate number of black men in jail. And so what he's saying is that if we had more abortion based on this strange argument in the "Freakonomics" book, that if crime went down, then, as I think all of us might think, given these realities, we're talking disproportionately about young black men. There's nothing racist about that.

GORDON: All right. Callie Crossley, you ready to give Bill Bennett a break on that?

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY ("Beat the Press"): No, indeed. I have cold fury about it, and I say to myself first, if he were to replace, `abort every black baby' with any other group, what would be the response and what kind of anger would be stated? I mean, he did exactly what the Reverend Jesse Jackson has said. He put people in an `other' category, which made it possible for him then to speak in, what he says--I'm quoting him now--"provocative terms, raising an issue." This is the most ridiculous and--I rarely say racist in this way--racist statement I've heard in a while. It's just absolutely astounding that in 2005, from a person that held a national position in our government, that we're dealing with this kind of overt statement.

GORDON: George Curry...

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (The National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): First of all, this...

GORDON: George Curry, let me take you--pick it up, but let me take you to point of fact, if you look at just, as John McWhorter was trying to say, the idea of sheer numbers, if you take disproportionate crime committed by African-American males and then suggest that if they weren't around, you wouldn't see that kind of crime. Does Bill Bennett have a leg to stand on if he says, `I'm just talking simple math here'?

Mr. CURRY: Well, first of all, this is specious logic. First of all, yes, you have a disproportionate amount of African-Americans in jail, and part of the reason is you have a disproportionate number who are charged with a crime, and the deeper you go into the criminal justice system, you see the more disparity. Yeah. If you aborted all the blacks, you abort all the black inventors, the people who invented the traffic light, the elevator, the fountain pen--you can go down the whole list. He could have said--why didn't he say, `Let's abort all white males and, therefore, we wouldn't have the Timothy McVeighs and Charles Manson and Ted Bunson(ph) and John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer'? I mean, if you want to talk about aborting somebody, why don't you do that? There are more mass murderers who are white that we know about than certainly African Americans. So the whole argument is specious.

Mr. McWHORTER: Ed, can I...

GORDON: Yeah, please.

Mr. McWHORTER: ...interject something? First of all, I hope we can remember that he said that he wasn't talking in reality. The flow of that conversation was that he was talking about a simple mathematical hypothetical that he would never want to see actually done, and also, very briefly, he didn't say that all African-American people should be aborted.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, though, John...

Mr. McWHORTER: It was more...

GORDON: ...and let me just...

Mr. CURRY: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

GORDON: Let me just say this...

Mr. McWHORTER: Hold on, George.

Mr. CURRY: If you go back and hear the tape...

GORDON: George, George, hold on one second. Let me ask you this, John. Couldn't he have said that exact same thing and not used `black'? Couldn't he have just said, `If you had more abortions, you'd see a reduction in the crime rate,' which is the hypothesis of "Freakonomics"? So why not just take the racial element out of the question?

Mr. McWHORTER: It depends on what the flow of the conversation was, and based on the excerpt that we keep being played, I genuinely don't know why race came into it. But even if, for some reason, he just brought it up out of the clear blue sky--let's say that that's what happened, if we listened to the whole thing--nevertheless, what he said is not a statement that has anything to do with thinking that black people are lesser beings. He's referring to an unfortunate racial disproportion that has all sorts of grievous reasons. We shouldn't be afraid that it's dirty laundry or something or that only black people should be allowed to mention it.

Mr. CURRY: I don't consider it dirty laundry. I consider it dirty politics.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I don't either.

Mr. CURRY: And what he said was--and let's be clear about it--`You could abort every black baby...'

Ms. CROSSLEY: That's right.

Mr. CURRY: `...in this country.' That's what he said.

Ms. CROSSLEY: And that would include Condi, you know. I mean, it's...

Mr. CURRY: And Colin Powell and Al Jackson.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Exactly.

GORDON: All right. We will move on. This is not going to go away. I promise you we'll continue to talk about it. And again, we've extended an invitation to Bill Bennett to come on the program to speak to us and tell us what exactly he meant. We won't have to hypothesize what he meant at that point.

It has taken the heat off of Alphonso Jackson, though, for his statements about the gentrification, if you will, of New Orleans. Again, people arguing whether it's just a point of fact that this city will no longer, Callie Crossley, be as, quote, "black" as it used to be.

Ms. CROSSLEY: You know, I think that was an interesting statement, because somebody else had started--some other commentators had started to pose this as a reality, too, for a couple of reasons, and one that, again, Reverend Jesse Jackson raised. If you already have these no-bid contracts keeping out black workers rebuilding the city, they can't even invest in their own city to build houses to come back, so that's one of the big things. So you can't even get folks back in town working on their city who have the skills and the equipment and the availability to do so. So that's one thing.

The second thing really is about those economics, and if you are not going to pay people a living wage, then they certainly cannot last through the rebuilding process, which we now know is going to be extensive and take folks with a lot of money to be able to just sustain being there for some time without all of the stuff that you need to survive: hospitals and water and blah, blah and blah, blah.

The third thing I think that'll be interesting is whether or not there will be an increase in the Hispanic population in terms of service workers, because a lot of the evacuees that left have--are trying to find work elsewhere and have said they may not return, so that's going to attribute to some of the lowering of numbers. But I also think that there's going to be an increase in the population of Hispanics in the area just because of geographics and because, in general, there is a lot of Hispanics who are sought for service worker positions, positions that would have been held by black folks. So to some degree, there's going to be a reduction of black folks. Now how it happens will be interesting to see.

GORDON: Yeah. Yeah. George Curry, anything wrong with that if, indeed, we just see the changing face of New Orleans?

Mr. CURRY: Well, I don't think it should be engineered so that you can only do it basically around racial lines. If you look at the major cities in this country, if you look at DC, Memphis, Atlanta, Baltimore, Jackson, Mississippi, Birmingham, Detroit, they're all over 60 percent population African-American, so that is kind of what defines urban America. That's just where you have most of the blacks, most of the blacks live in the city, so there's nothing, in and of itself, wrong with that. And so I don't really understand why Al wants to limit that, and I've known Al for 30 years, more than 30 years, and we're friends. We don't agree on everything, but we're friends. And this whole idea that you're going to engineer--we're going to limit the number of black people coming back, I think, is preposterous.

GORDON: John.

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, I have often said about New Orleans that I hope that what we can see is a new thriving, working class, black enclave, and then what I heard from some people, who, you know, consider themselves good-thinking people who are seeking justice, is that, `We don't want that kind of segregation,' and we're told by many of our best and brightest that when you get too many working class or poor black people together in one place, then all heck must break loose, and that what we really need is integration.

So on the one hand, it seems to me that we can be very upset when someone suggests that there won't be the large numbers of black people that there were, but then on the other hand, if that were exactly what were being planned, then there'd be lots of bleeding-heart newspaper articles saying that we're reproducing that big terrible word, segregation. I'm genuinely not sure what we're supposed to be satisfied with here.

Mr. CURRY: No one said it had to be segregated in order to come back. In fact, if you look even at HUD, even on Al Jackson, what they're pushing forward is that you should have mixed income. Nobody said they had to be segregated all in the Ninth Ward, but they should be mixed in with other income groups so they can get the benefits of the city.

GORDON: All right. We only have about two minutes left to tackle--no surprise here--Senate confirmation of John Roberts Jr. to the chief justice seat on the Supreme Court. The vote was 78-to-22. All Republicans voting in the `for' there. John McWhorter, no surprise here, but what it does do now is put the klieg light on the next seat, the Sandra Day O'Connor seat.

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, of course. Judge Roberts doesn't worry me in terms of some of the rumors we've heard that he is anti-integration or anti-civil rights. I think he just raised some rather academic questions. But I would be interested to see who we have next, and it seems that there's this idea that it should be a diverse person. I sincerely hope that that person is both diverse and as well-qualified in the formal sense as the other people on the court.

GORDON: George Curry, any surprise here that half of the Democrats voted in the affirmative and half voted in the negative for Roberts? Any surprise there, the way that split?

Mr. CURRY: Yeah. Somewhat surprising that some of the more liberal voices voted for him, but I think their strategy is, you know, that Roberts is eminently qualified for the position, probably the best you're going to get out of George Bush. If you're going to fight, there's no need in fighting both of them. Let's just wait for the second round, because essentially, with Roberts, you've got a conservative replacing a conservative. That next seat is really the most important fight.

GORDON: And, Callie, here is the big question for all of the talking heads. We've been hearing it, hearing it, hearing it over the course of the time between when Sandra Day O'Connor said she was stepping down and the idea that we would have another Bush appointee, or nominee, I should say, and that is the question of whether or not we're going to see a true fight from Democrats this time.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I think you'll see some posturing, and whether you can characterize it as a true fight is one thing. I did want to add one thing. A number of the people who did vote against, some are suggesting or have ideas toward a national stage, and so they did so for purely political reasons, and had they not been looking in that direction, may have even gone ahead and supported him.

GORDON: All right Callie Crossley, George Curry, John McWhorter, I thank you all for a very spirited roundtable today. Appreciate it.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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