There's no need to pillory William Bennett for his "thought experiment" about how aborting all black children would affect the crime rate. I believe him when he says he wasn't actually advocating genocide, just musing about it to make a point. Instead of going into high-dudgeon mode, let's put him on the couch.

Bennett, the former education secretary and anti-drug czar who has found a new calling in talk radio, told his audience last week that "if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose -- you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." He quickly added that doing so would be "impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible," which is certainly true.

So why would such a horrible idea even cross his mind? How could such an evil notion ever pass his lips?

Bennett was referring to research done by Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economist and lead author of the best-selling book "Freakonomics." The iconoclastic Levitt, something of an academic rock star, argues that the steep drop in crime in the United States over the past 15 years resulted in part from the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

In defending his words, Bennett has said he was citing "Freakonomics." So why did his "thought experiment" refer only to black children?

Levitt's thesis is essentially that unwanted children who grow up poor in single-parent households are more likely than other children to become criminals, and that Roe v. Wade resulted in fewer of these children being born. What he doesn't do in the book is single out black children.

Perhaps the ostentatiously intellectual Bennett went back and read Levitt's original 2001 paper on the subject, co-authored with John J. Donohue III. The authors do mention race briefly, in a discussion of the falling homicide rate, but attribute most of the decline to those race-neutral factors that Levitt later cited in "Freakonomics." To bolster their argument, they cite research on abortion and lowered crime rates in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe -- not places where you're likely to find a lot of black people.

If he was citing Levitt's work, Bennett could have said that to lower the crime rate "you could abort every white baby" or "you could abort every Hispanic baby" or "you could abort every Asian baby," since every group has unwanted, poor children being raised by single mothers.

So now that we have Bennett on the couch, shouldn't we conclude that he mentioned only black children because, perhaps on a subconscious level, he associates "black" with "criminal''?

That's what it sounds like to me. I grew up in the South in the days when we had to drink at "colored" water fountains and gas stations had separate "colored" restrooms; I know what a real racist is like, and Bennett certainly doesn't fit the description. But that's what's so troubling about his race-specific "thought experiment" -- that such a smart, well-meaning opinion maker would so casually say something that translates, to African American ears, as "blacks are criminals."

What makes it worse is that his words came in the context of abortion. That Bennett staunchly opposes abortion is beside the point. He should know enough history to understand why black Americans would react strongly when whites start imagining experiments to limit black reproduction. For hundreds of years, this country was obsessed with the supposed menace of black sexuality and fertility. Bennett's remarks have to make you wonder whether that obsession has really vanished or just been deemed off-limits in polite discourse.

I've heard people argue -- mostly in discussions of affirmative action -- that the nation's problem of racial discrimination has mostly been solved. The issue now is class, they say, not race. I'd like to believe that, but I don't.

Bennett is too intelligent not to understand why many of us would take his mental experiment as a glimpse behind the curtain -- an indication that old assumptions, now unspoken, still survive. He ought to understand how his words would be taken as validation by the rapper Kanye West, who told a television audience that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," or by the New Orleans survivors who keep calling me with theories of how "they" dynamited selected levees to flood the poor, black Lower Ninth Ward and save the wealthy French Quarter and Garden District.

I have a thought experiment of my own: If we put our racial baggage on the table and talk about it, we'll begin to take care of a lot of unfinished business.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com