FBI Director James Comey pierced the law enforcement veil yesterday to deliver a surprisingly honest speech that more than anything appealed to white America and to law enforcement to consider the role that their “unconscious racial biases” may play in their sometimes violent reactions to Black faces.
As protests have raged on America’s streets in the last several months because of the police killings of unarmed Black men, battle lines have been drawn and the opposing sides have glared at each other across the divide—police and their supporters on one side and Black people and their supporters on the other. Comey’s speech was the first public attempt by a law enforcement official to breach the divide and demonstrate empathy for the Black community’s point of view.
From an historical perspective, Comey’s speech was even more remarkable because of the position he currently holds as director of the FBI. It is the job that was held by J. Edgar Hoover for an enormous swath of the 20th century—a position that Hoover used to monitor and torment African-American leaders and thinkers for decades, casting a pall over federal law enforcement’s relationship with the Black community. Coincidentally, a book is being published next week by Washington University professor William Maxwell called “FB Eyes: How J Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature,” which reveals Hoover’s obsession with Black culture and the activities of Black thinkers. The FBI had thousands of pages on dozens of prominent Black writers, including Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison and Lorraine Hansberry, stretching across much of the mid-20th century.
In fact, Comey admitted in his Georgetown University speech that he keeps Hoover’s one-page approval of the wiretap of Dr. Martin Luther King on his desk in Washington as a reminder of the bureau’s past mistakes.
While Comey sought balance in his speech by imploring the Black community to try to understand the perils police officers face on the job, that statement was unremarkable because it has become a pro forma request from policing leaders. But what stood out was his discussion of bias at work in the minds of the police and how the cynicism that eventually overcomes many police officers allows them to succumb to “lazy mental shortcuts.”
“A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights,” Comey said. “The two young Black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two white men on the other side of the street—even in the same clothes—do not. The officer does not make the same association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or Black. And that drives different behavior. The officer turns toward one side of the street and not the other. We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve.”
Comey called them “hard truths,” the racial realities that we all must face but usually try to run away from as fast as we can. One of his hard truths was that the history of law enforcement in America is filled with ugliness and discrimination, against his Irish ancestors at one point and especially against Black people.
“The Irish had tough times, but little compares to the experience on our soil of Black Americans,” he said. “That experience should be part of every American’s consciousness, and law enforcement’s role in that experience—including in recent times—must be remembered. It is our cultural inheritance.”
One of the most illuminating hard truths was Comey’s discussion of “unconscious bias,” which he said is something every person in our society carries around with them and which can cause white people to “react differently to a white face than a Black face.” Comey even quoted from a Broadway song called “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” which partly states, Maybe it’s a fact, We all should face, Everyone makes judgments, Based on race.
“You should be grateful I did not try to sing that,” Comey joked.
While he said law enforcement isn’t any more likely to have racial bias than academia and the arts, Comey delved into a cynicism that can overtake officers who may have joined the force with well-meaning intentions to help people. This is what leads to the lazy mental shortcuts, he said.
“Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment,” he said. “After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.”
“So why has that officer—like his colleagues—locked up so many young men of color?” he asked rhetorically. “Why does he have that life-shaping experience? Is it because he is a racist? Why are so many Black men in jail? Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries are racist? Because they are turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers? The answer is a fourth hard truth: I don’t think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address. We would just need to change the way we hire, train, and measure law enforcement and that would substantially fix it. We would then go get those white criminals we have been ignoring. But the truth is significantly harder than that.
“The truth is that what really needs fixing is something only a few, like President Obama, are willing to speak about, perhaps because it is so daunting a task. Through the ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative, the President is addressing the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color. For instance, data shows that the percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for Blacks as it is for whites. This initiative, and others like it, is about doing the hard work to grow drug-resistant and violence-resistant kids, especially in communities of color, so they never become part of that officer’s life experience.”
Comey talked about the struggles that young men of color deal with in too many communities, the likelihood that they are growing up in an environment lacking in role models, lacking an adequate education and decent employment and inheriting a legacy of crime and prison.
“With that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer—whether white or Black—sees the world,” he said. “Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops. And that’s not fair.”
Comey admitted that he has an affection for cops that began with his grandfather, a strong, dignified man of integrity who eventually became chief of the Yonkers, NY, police department.
“Law enforcement ranks are filled with people like my grandfather. But, to be clear, although I am from a law enforcement family, and have spent much of my career in law enforcement, I’m not looking to let law enforcement off the hook,” Comey said. “Those of us in law enforcement must redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice. We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young Black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us. We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach him with respect and decency.
“We must work—in the words of New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton—to really see each other. Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We simply must see the people we serve.”
“Seeing each other,” in Comey’s eyes, also means that people in the community must be able to see the world through the eyes of the police officer, understanding the dangers they face on a daily basis.
“They need to understand the difficult and frightening work they do to keep us safe,” he said. “They need to give them the space and respect to do their work, well and properly. If they take the time to do that, what they will see are officers who are human, who are overwhelmingly doing the right thing for the right reasons, and who are too often operating in communities—and facing challenges—most of us choose to drive around.”
He said he customarily calls chiefs and sheriffs in departments around the nation when officers have been killed in the line of duty to pay his respects and express his sorrow—and it is one of the hardest parts of his job as FBI Director. This led him to one of his final points—the staggering inadequacy of the nation’s record-keeping when it comes to law enforcement issues like police-involved shootings, information police departments submit on a voluntary basis. After the explosive killings of Black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the nation was stunned to discover that we really have no idea how many people get killed every year by the police.
“How can we address concerns about ‘use of force,’ how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents?” he asked. “We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities.”
Noting that his speech was being delivered on February 12, the birthdate of Abraham Lincoln, Comey said the country has spent the 150 years since Lincoln’s Gettysburg address “making great progress, but along the way treating a whole lot of people of color poorly. And law enforcement was often part of that poor treatment. That’s our inheritance as law enforcement and it is not all in the distant past.”
“We must account for that inheritance,” Comey said. “And we—especially those of us who enjoy the privilege that comes with being the majority—must confront the biases that are inescapable parts of the human condition. We must speak the truth about our shortcomings as law enforcement, and fight to be better. But as a country, we must also speak the truth to ourselves. Law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods. Police officers—people of enormous courage and integrity, in the main—are in those neighborhoods, risking their lives, to protect folks from offenders who are the product of problems that will not be solved by body cameras.
“In the words of Dr. King, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools,'” Comey said.
After the speech, Ronald E. Teachman, the police chief in South Bend, Ind., said Comey’s words will make it far easier for him to continue discussing these difficult issues in Indiana now that Comey had done so in such a public manner.
“It helps me move the conversation forward when the F.B.I. director speaks so boldly,” he told the New York Times.