Friday, September 30, 2005

Playing Both Sides of the Field

A friend of mind sent me a link to this article with the inflammatory subject title “Aborting black babies”. The link came with the following succinct comment: “This is crazy. Please do your part in protesting this A-hole. I can't believe he's allowed to be on the radio.”

I don’t believe in silencing anyone’s voice nor do I want there to exist a person or group who get to decide who is "allowed to be on the radio". I think we simply need to give equal access to media outlets to all viewpoints and then we wouldn't get so upset when something a little controversial finally leaked in. Anyway, I really had a totally different reaction to the article so I will put my two cents out into the blogosphere to see if I can offer some counterbalance…

This article is not crazy to me. Bennett is using the fact that we cannot make ethical and moral decisions based strictly on statistics, especially by extrapolating what the statistics say. He drew from a book that has been the on non-fiction bestsellers list for quite some time called Freakanomics written by Stephen Levitt (and cowritten by Stephen Dubner). The book is an interesting read and the unifying theme is how we can use regressional statistics to measure the social impacts of policies such as federally legalizing abortion in 1970 vs. violent crime rates. I was the first one in my office of engineers to read it, and many of my co-workers have now read it and it has started meaningful discussions. Freakonomics is not a book of morals but simply a book of data and statistics and the reader is left to make his own decisions about human kind, abortion, dignity, morality, etc.

The author’s data is highly compelling but his academic rigor is not presented in the book. We can only hope that the fact that the author is an economist at the esteemed University of Chicago indicates that his methods are scientifically sound. With that said, according to Levitt's data, it turns out that legalizing abortion has a higher correlation to crimes, and in particular violent crimes such as homicide, than size of the police force, unemployment, GNP and a whole slew of other variables that conventional wisdom has focused on. Compared to conventional wisdom about crime, the numbers tell a different story (and most of us engineers tend to understand the reliability of numbers vs. intuition since nobody ever intuited a cell phone network or a turbocharger without some rigorous mathematical work) and it is important to try to understand the causal relationships of phenomenon in our society. No matter what the raw numbers say, we still have our very human system of morals and values, but why not dispel as many myths and incorrect theories as possible when we are allocating resources and passing laws? What if we could find the most highly correlated variable when it comes to suicide bombings and terrorism? Perhaps we could really fight a war on terror if we used regressional analysis to see what leads to the psychic development of a suicide bomber, but we are allocating all of our resources with little understanding of how a terrorist gets made....our current war on terror is really an effort to control terror (at best, even though it smacks of a corporate crusade to rape and pillage if you ask me). But even if you follow the party line that we are in fact at war with terrorists, wouldn’t it make sense to try not to do the very things that can be shown to increase acts of terrorism in the first place.

But back to the comments of Bennett. I think this gentleman was taking it as obvious that aborting children based on race was morally irreprehensible, and using that fact to explain why you don't make political policy strictly based on statistical data. Unfortunately, men like Bennett do not always understand how raw the wounds of racism still are in this country, and how vigilant black people must remain in spite of the fact that things are different today than they were fifty years ago. Not all, but some white people in particular have the privilege of being ignorant about how other people think and see the world that always leads to some making insensitive comments. (Remember after the 9/111 bombing when it was virtually ONLY white people asking “why do they hate us” or remember after the OJ Simpson trial when millions became disillusioned with the American justice system FOR THE FIRST TIME). But even though what Bennett said might be inflammatory and unwise given the fact that people will react to such powerful rhetoric, I think we as a culture have more to worry about than this guy. To be honest, I think that fighting racism in this country shouldn’t even be the number one priority of any socially minded African American. Any of us African Americans that harangues about the injustice of this country is a powerful hypocrite if we cannot see that WE as Americans are guilty of the same policy globally that we convict white people of practicing domestically. How could I take shots at white people as if they consciously perpetuate racism en masse, and then shirk my own responsibility as an American when MY government tries to enslave the third world without the rights I enjoy here, even if I am part of the most maligned group subset of Americans. Remember that this subset of African Americans has turned out a Ken Chenault (CEO of AMEX) and a Richard Parsons (CEO of AOL/Time Warner) and a Colin Powell whereas I don’t know how much opportunity folks have in East Timor or Fullajah. I think that black people such as myself who have ascended to a professional level that at least kind of works like a meritocracy should remember that as an American citizen and co-owner of the economy (though my shareholdings) I participate in a global racism and oppression that is much worse than what is being visited upon black people in the United States these days. After all, would you rather be an undereducated and underemployed black man in the United States...or gainfully employed in the Sudan.

Its time we accept our dual identity as oppressor and oppressed. We are in a unique position to draw on our experience of being attacked, misunderstood, and misrepresented and yet having found the courage to participate and thrive in the very culture that has marganilized us. No one is better suited to be the moral compass this country needs in this day and age…

mr. wilson


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chad said...

Insightful, Mr. Wilson.
You have an interesting perspective on Bennett’s comments. I must admit when I first ran across the story on my internet news source du jour, I was a little suspicious. The headline said “Bennett suggests aborting black babies to lower crime”… Prior to hosting this radio show, Mr. Bennett was a successful member of the Regan/Bush cabinet, and one does not get that far in politics by being an outspoken racist. I suspected that there might have been more to what he said, and sure enough there was. Our news media enjoys crucifying people so much, and since the Michael Brown/FEMA story has started getting stale, some journalist decided to twist this man’s words around. As best as I can see, he was arguing against the use of correlations gleaned from observational data, because the inferences one makes with these data are not always accurate or moral. Aborting black babies to prevent crime is a ridiculous notion, but if one uses the statistical association of black race and crime, then one might infer that lowering the population of blacks by abortion would lower the crime rate, and that this is a prudent course of action. Of course this is a morally and likely analytically flawed approach to reducing crime, and that’s what Bennett was pointing out. So by my estimation, his comments were not racist. Admittedly though, Bennett’s career in politics ought to have taught him that you have to choose your words carefully, and some things are taboo, even if it’s just for the sake of argument.

The point you make at the close of your post regarding our “dual identity as oppressor and oppressed” is poetic, but more importantly enlightening. I think the thing you are uncovering is that black people who are trying to deal with righting wrong should be concerned about those suffering the greatest wrong. The reason why so many black people focus on domestic racism as the “greatest evil” is because they are a victim to it. Not everyone who cries racism is interested in righteousness, justice, and equality…some are just angry and upset about their personal wounds, and couldn’t give a damn about their brothers’ injuries on the other side of the world. Even though in comparison the wounds of domestic racism are a pin prick compared to the abdominal evisceration in the third world. It does seem remarkable, but social consciousness in the black community in our generation is appallingly low. I’m not sure if it’s ignorance, but I can’t understand why I know more young white people who are discussing ethnic genocide, ongoing famine, the HIV epidemic, and post-colonial economic paralysis in Africa than I know black people who are cognizant of these problems. You would think black Americans would value global humanitarianism more than anyone, but as you point out, we are too busy rooting out all the racist radio hosts to notice that Africa is dying.

Anyway, That brings me to a gripe that I want to put forward at this time (sorry to use your blog for my rant forum, but it seems appropriate):
I also got an email campaigning to remove Bennett from his radio show probably from the same person who sent it to you. I suspect that the individual who sent out the mass email, did not investigate the story carefully, because anyone who gets beyond the headline and the sound bite would draw the same conclusion that you and I have. I think individuals who forward stories to a mailing list that they did not take the time to read, and think about are guilty of some as yet unnamed internet transgression. This seems to be very popular with blacks on the internet. I bet the young woman who sent the email to me, thinks she is doing a service for her people by “exposing” this racist to the electronic black community. I think she is doing a disservice, because to perpetuate sensationalism and material of dubious credibility by indiscriminately forwarding it to your distribution list causes more people to be misled, bamboozled, and run amok. I actually had a telephone conversation with this young woman when she was forwarding inflammatory messages charging racism to America after the Katrina disaster. I explained to her that being black Americans does not give us the right to make casual accusations of racism just because we have historically been the oppressed minority. Every time the accusation of racism is made unjustly against some individual or institution that is innocent, it does a little more to divide our nation which clearly is in need of some healing and unity and not more racial derisiveness. I’m not suggesting that racism does not exist…but we have to be very prudent in judging the evidence before we lay that heavy indictment on anyone. This woman I was conversing with saw no harm in forwarding a few emails, but I maintain that it’s the electronic equivalent of neighborhood gossip, but much more powerful. Riots have been incited with just a little misinformation being dispersed through the right channels. Maybe I am being dramatic to suggest that blood will flow in the streets because she sent out an email calling someone a racist, but I think it’s naïve to believe that there is no potential adverse consequence to spreading rumor, half-truth, and outright bullshit on the internet.

To tie this back to your post, wouldn’t be nice if people took the time to research real injustice, and then passed that along in their mass emails? Wouldn’t it be empowering if black America harnessed the internet to expose the threats to blacks in other parts of the world? Wouldn't it be refreshing if awareness was raised about the people of the world who are truly suffering traumatic wounds instead of the people in America that have a splinter stuck in their thumb?

An oppressed oppressor,

“It is the indispensable duty of those, who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who possess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labor under.”
~Benjamin Banneker

Intellectual Insurgent said...

I thought the guy's premise was racist (something to the effect that "you know the crime rate would go down if you aborted black babies"). But, my follow up question is, "so what"?

It somehow seems better to have a racist who is willing to be open about his views than one who smiles in your face while doing horrible things to your peeps behind your back.

What is inflaming this sitution is the fact that Republicans are bending over backwards to apologize and make excuses for the guy. If the R's stood up and said, the guy's comments were f'd up, I think everyone would forget it happened and go back to focusing on Britney Spears' new baby.

If Bennett said the same thing about Jewish people, no one would be defending him. It's the double standard that has everyone outraged.

Mr. Wilson said...

Chad -

I hate how I agree with you on most everything. All these people who say we are night and day must not know us very well...

I think I am going to have to post on this topic again in a more generic sense because I have received even more e-mails from people regarding this issue and it is disturbing me. It is the same apolitical and highly uninformed people who send me this kind of stuff when it happens. they sent me the "black people loot, white people find" e-mail exposing the racism of the media. Then they send me the Kanye West "Geroge Bush doesn't like black people" forward. Great Kanye is my spokesperson now. Now I get this forward. It is almost like black people in this country have attention deficit disorder and can only be moved by having a quick emotional reaction...but even when they are moved, they are only moved to click forward and believe they are fighting injustice by doing so. Its a good thing because Desperate Housewives is coming on in ten minutes and we wouldn't want to miss that now would we...

John McAdams said...

Freakonomics Author Tries to Cover Butt in Wake of Bennett Comments

In fact, the authors of Freakonomics made explicitly racial arguments in economics journal articles. They said nothing remotely racist, but they did stress the empirical connection between race and abortion and crime.

Mr. Wilson said...

below is a comment someone e-mailed me directly and i follow with a response...

You make very good points and I agree with you. I think blacks are a little sensitive about being mentioned in the same sentence with crime, regardless of the context. I also agree there are more pressing concerns.

btw, are you curious as to why the book mentioned black babies when the statistical point could've been made with any ethnicity? I admit, this question is being asked by a sensitive black, but one who doesn't want to be that way. I hate that these "was that racist?" questions pop up in my mind.

I'll check out your blog tonight when I'm not restrained to a 1-hr lunch period.



Well, Bennett did make one ideaological jump from the book. Freakonomics points to the fact that prior to Roe v. Wade, it was predominately the daughters of middle and upper class families who could arrange a safe illegal abortion, but that after Roe v. Wade, the cost of an abortion was reduced by over 80%. Now the procedure was available to women near or below the poverty line (which African American women represented in disproportionate numbers). Bennett made the mistake of taking the argument put forth in Freakonomics from socio-economic to racial. i really think he intended to make an absurd extrapolation from the data, only he didn't think anyone would take him seriously, especially when he immediately called the idea ridiculous and morally irreprehensible. However I don't have to stop and ask my self if what he said is racist? I can never know the guy's heart, but I assume that he is like almost everyone else in this country and that he has been impacted by race and has made some statistically accurate observations and some statistically inaccurate observations. who hasn't? What makes this guy such an abomination? Bennett is no different than a white person (let's call him Todd) who pays extra rent to live in a neighborhood that has a lot of white faces because he feels safer or more at home. Todd will never waste his time justifying why he feels safer in a neigborhood full of white people gathering data about crime rates by neighborhood. Todd will use his observations, fears, experiences, perceptions regardless of if they are racist or not. So if Bennett is indeed common, what point does it serve to remove his voice from the airwaves? We need a wider range of voices and opinions already and making things more narrow. And believe me, the range of perspectives we see in the major media are extremely narrow.

Like I said, it was an insensitive comment, but what about the thousands of insenstive comments made in our media about Iraqis, Muslims, Arabs, etc.? The truth is you cannot get people off the air (in America) because they say something you don't like, and especially if you don't have any solidarity with other people who are attacked in your mainstream just encourage them to put people on the air who will codefy everything and are potentially much more racist and bigotted, since bigots have the most expertise in hiding their racist notions. I think Bennett is just a victim of not knowing how vigilant and sensitive african americans can be. What i don't understand is why we as a people are not vigilant when other minority groups are attacked. Why do we not come to the aid of genocide victims with the same vigor. Here in the united states it is obvious that we have won (to a large degree) our dignity and access to resources (even if the realities of the inner city combined with our media do create a lot of unnecessary real and psychic issues that still make it difficult to succeed). racism still exists in this country, but i just don't understand why the same people who love to read this stuff and forward it out and cry victim justifying their own pessimism and anger, never really want to do anything to improve the world they live in. they are too busy saying how unfair it is, maybe so that it is easier to deal with their own psychic wounds, but maybe the best way to deal with our psychic wounds is to realize how much more severe the global pyschic wounds of oppresssion, famine, coloniolism, etc. are.

if you want to save yourself, save someone in need and show the man with more power and resources how its done.

just something to consider...