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A Better Cure Than Abortion

By William Raspberry
Monday, October 10, 2005

You know by now what William Bennett said: "You could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down."

What you may not have figured out is what your reaction to his statement should be.

You could demand that the former education secretary and drug "czar" apologize, be fired by the radio station on which he made the remark and be ridden out of town on a rail.

You could say: "What a wonderful solution to crime. Let's do it -- oops, I forgot, I'm opposed to abortion."

You could call for an end to the hypocrisy, noting that Bennett made crystal clear -- even as he was delivering his awful words -- that he was not recommending any such "impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible" action, only making a rhetorical point on quite another matter.

You could challenge the underlying premise that blacks commit a disproportionate amount of the nation's crime -- which is what the Justice Policy Institute is trying to do. Jason Ziedenberg, the institute's executive director, has been making a number of points: among them that blacks are more likely than whites to end up in prison for the same offenses and that, holding constant such factors as education, employment and family structure, blacks are no more criminally disposed than whites.

Or you could tell a story.

I'd like to tell a story. Some years ago, South Africa's game managers had to figure out what to do about the elephant herd at Kruger National Park. The herd was growing well beyond the ability of the park to sustain it.

The two-phase solution: transport some of the herd to the Pilanesberg game park and kill off some of those that were too big to transport. And so they did.

A dozen years later, several of the transported young males (now teenagers) started attacking Pilanesberg's herd of white rhinos, an endangered species. They used their trunks to throw sticks at the rhinos, chased them over long hours and great distances, and stomped to death a tenth of the herd -- all for no discernible reason.

Park managers decided they had no choice but to kill some of the worst juvenile offenders. They had killed five of them when someone came up with another bright idea: Bring in some of the mature males from Kruger -- there was by then the technology to transport the larger animals -- and hope that the bigger, stronger males could bring the adolescents under control.

To the delight of the park officials, it worked. The big bulls, quickly establishing the natural hierarchy, became the dominant sexual partners of the females, and the reduction in sexual activity among the juveniles lowered their soaring testosterone levels and reduced their violent behavior.

The new discipline, it turned out, was not just a matter of size intimidation. The young bulls actually started following the Big Daddies around, enjoying the association with the adults, yielding to their authority and learning from them proper elephant conduct. The assaults on the white rhinos ended abruptly.

There's no more point in denying Bennett's implication that black youngsters are more likely than their white counterparts to commit crimes than in denying the dismaying behavior of those adolescent elephants.

Here's the point: For reasons arguably as benign as those that led to the tragedy of Pilanesberg, America's black inner cities have been denuded of their adult men. It started, in my memory, in the 1960s with the enforcement of the man-in-the-house rule, whereby welfare payments were cut off if investigators could establish that an adult able-bodied male (whether or not he was employed) lived in the household.

And the de-manizing went completely out of control with the introduction of absurdly long and mandatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses and the implementation of such judge-proof policies as the three-strikes-and-you're-out rule.

The result is that huge numbers of black men are being taken out of their communities -- overwhelmingly for nonviolent offenses -- and the effect of their absence is at least as powerful as with the South African elephants.

Except now we know. Social scientists across the political spectrum tell us that father absence is a stronger predictor of criminal behavior than family income, education -- or (Bill Bennett, take note) race.

And while individual youngsters can manage life without father reasonably well in many cases, few are able to come unscathed through fatherless communities . Americans are right to be worried about crime. But we'd better learn from the elephants' tale and take care that the cure doesn't exacerbate the very problem we're trying to solve.

willrasp@washpost.com

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