Walking home one day in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I heard a woman curse a man with the words, “You female kangaroo without a pouch!” Male kangaroos do not have pouches, which are part of the female reproductive anatomy. From the rage in the woman’s face, you could tell it was the worst curse she could muster from her entire life experience. The cursee’s offense was so heinous that he belonged in a special class of freaks.
As innocuous as that curse may be to Western ears, it crushed the cursee, who tried in vain to bound away. Onlookers taunted him mercilessly. It did not matter that they had no idea what had provoked the fight between the two. What mattered was that the man’s words or deeds were enough to warrant a public tongue-lashing. In that kind of society, where modesty and shame are still very much in vogue, the humiliation of such public excoriation follows you to your grave.
On matters of race, Western democracies hide many a female-kangaroo-without-a-pouch. But every now and then, one of them shows its snout. Recent examples: A religious leader calling for the murder of an elected head of state; a former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission describing the victims of Katrina as “the permanently poor—people who don’t have jobs, are not used to getting up and organizing themselves and getting things done and for whom sitting and waiting is a way of life.”
Hardly had outrage at these snout showings died down when William J. Bennett, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, former U.S. secretary of education, former “czar” of the nation’s war on drugs and, according to news reports, a repentant high-roller who lost millions in Las Vegas and Atlantic City until he publicly renounced gambling in 2003, showed his. On his nationally syndicated radio show, Bennett said, “(If) you wanted to reduce crime...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 aborting all African-American babies “would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do,” then repeated, “but the crime rate would go down.”
Bennett was responding to a caller’s suggestion that the “lost revenue from the people who have been aborted in the last 30 years” would have been enough to keep Social Security solvent. Author of The Book of Virtues and The Death of Outrage, which blasted the public’s failure to take former President Bill Clinton’s sins more seriously, Bennett stood his ground. “I was putting forward a hypothetical proposition. Put that forward. Examined it. And then said about it that it’s morally reprehensible. To recommend abortion of an entire group of people in order to lower your crime rate is morally reprehensible,” he told CNN. “I’m not racist, and I’ll put my record up against theirs,” he said, referring to his critics.
Apologize? “I think people who misrepresented my view owe me an apology,” Bennett declared.
There is something desperate about a climate in which such remarks can be thought of, uttered, defended, then tucked away. Still to come: many more snout showings.
By Rosalind McLymont