Friday, October 7, 2005

Taking It Personally

Leonard Pitts tells how Bill Bennett’s comments strike very close to home.

My youngest son was arrested last year.

Police came to my house looking for an armed robbery suspect, five-feet eight-inches tall with long hair. They took my son, six-foot-three with short braids. They made my daughter, 14, fresh from the shower and dressed for bed, lie face down in wet grass and handcuffed her. They took my grandson, 8, from the bed where he slept and made him sit on the sidewalk beside her.

My son, should it need saying, hadn’t done a damn thing. In fact, I was talking to him long distance — I was in New Orleans — at the time of the alleged crime. Still, he spent almost two weeks in jail. The prosecutor asked for a high bail, citing the danger my son supposedly posed.

A few weeks later, the prosecutor declined to press charges, finally admitting there was no evidence. The alleged perpetrator of the alleged crime, a young man who was staying with us, did go on trial. There was no robbery, he said. The alleged victim had picked a fight with him, lost and concocted a tale. A surveillance video backed him up. The jury returned an acquittal in a matter of hours.

But the damage was done. The police took a picture of my son the night he was arrested. He is on his knees, hands cuffed behind him, eyes fathomless and dead. I cannot see that picture without feeling a part of me die.

So I take personally what William Bennett said. For those who missed it, Bennett, former education secretary and self-appointed arbiter of all things moral, said last week on his radio program that if you wanted to reduce crime, “you could . . . abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.”

The comment has been widely denounced. Bennett says critics are quoting him out of context, leaving out his denunciation of the idea and the fact he was criticizing a thesis that holds that making abortion readily available to low-income women in the ’70s led the U.S. crime rate to drop in the ’90s.

Fine. I get all that. But see, my anger doesn’t stem from any mistaken belief that Bennett wants to practice eugenics on black mothers. No, what bothers me is his easy, almost causal conflation of race and crime. Not class and crime, not culture and crime, but race and crime. As if black, solely and of itself, equals felony.

It’s a conflation that comes too readily to too many. The results of which can be read in studies such as the one the Justice Department co-sponsored in 2000 that found black offenders receive substantially harsher treatment at every step along the way than white ones with similar records.

They can also be read in that picture of my son, eyes lifeless and dull with the realization of How Things Are.

I once asked a black police officer who was uninvolved in the case how his colleagues could have arrested a six-foot-three man while searching for a five-foot-eight suspect. They were looking for a black man, he said. Any black man would do.

So how do I explain that to my son? Should I tell him to content himself with the fact that to some people, all black men look alike, all look like criminals?

Actually I don’t have to explain it at all. A few months back, my son was stopped by police and cited for driving with an obstructed windshield. The “obstruction” was one of those air fresheners shaped like a Christmas tree.

So my son gets it now. Treatment he once found surprising he now recognizes as the price he pays for being. He understands what the world expects of him.

I’ve watched that awful knowledge take root in three sons now. In a few years, I will watch it take root in my grandson, who is in the fifth grade.

The conflation of black and crime may be easy for William Bennett, but it never gets any easier for me.