Bennett, making his first public speech since the comment aired on his radio show last month, said the meaning of his remark linking the crime rate with black abortions was reversed in many news reports.
"I was putting forward a bad argument in order to put it down," Bennett said, drawing sustained applause from nearly 4,500 people attending the Bakersfield Business Conference. "They reported and emphasized only the abhorrent argument, not my shooting it down."
Bennett's comment on his show, "Morning in America," came in response to a caller's question regarding a recent book that suggested an increase in the abortion rate has helped reduce the crime rate.
Bennett said: "I do know that it's true 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."
Bennett, who is an abortion opponent, went on to say that such abortions would be "an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky."
Dozens of residents marched in protest outside the convention center where Bennett spoke, many saying they wanted to make sure he did not feel welcome in their community. Before the speech, local black leaders met with Bennett for an hour.
"He heard our outrage and our hurt, but he didn't say he was sorry," said Irma Carson, a Bakersfield councilwoman. "We didn't take (his comment) out of context, because there's no context in which those comments would fit."
Many in the largely white crowd attending Saturday's conference said it was clear to them that Bennett was using an extreme example that did not represent his views to make a point.
Doretha Jones said it was "obvious" that Bennett's radio remarks were "just a discussion of a possibility that could be espoused by human beings who don't have any feelings for babies or for blacks."
Bennett was education secretary under President Reagan and director of drug control policy under President George H.W. Bush.