As Americans of color have always known—and as the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice last year made abundantly clear—policing in this country is an unequal enterprise. In a speech yesterday, FBI Director James Comey stopped just short of admitting that American criminal justice is systematically racist, but he came pretty damn close.
Comey's speech, which the New York Times called "unusually candid," opened with an acknowledgement that police need to have an "an open and honest discussion" about their relationship with the communities they serve. Noting the Garner and Brown tragedies, Comey then moved into a frank discussion of law enforcement's—and especially the FBI's—awful legacy on race:
First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.
There is a reason I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI's interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy's approval of J. Edgar Hoover's request to wiretap Dr. King. The entire application is five sentences long, it is without fact or substance, and is predicated on the naked assertion that there is "communist influence in the racial situation." The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.
And instead of using that history to make a point about how far policing has come since then, Comey acknowledged that in 2015, cops still treat black and white people differently:
The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two young 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.
There's an obvious line to be drawn between those two points, and Comey is almost there: American policing is racist because it belongs to a tradition that has always been racist. When cops look back on the legacy of their profession in this country, they look back on a legacy filled with profiling, violence, and blind eyes turned toward public lynchings and the KKK. When Daniel Pantaleo hopped on Eric Garner's back, he was only doing as countless forebears of his have done in generations past. And just like many of those forebears, Pantaleo went unpunished by the criminal justice system he serves.
But just as Comey approached that line, he backed off. "Why are so many black men in jail?" he asked. "Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries are racist?...The answer is a fourth hard truth: I don't think so."
According to Comey's speech, discriminatory policing happens not because of the racism that is part of American law enforcement's very DNA, but because police "often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color." In his flawed view, the cop's knee-jerk reaction to treat black people like criminals is pernicious, but the biases that drive it are based on rational observation: It's hard for police not to assume that black men are criminals when so many of them actually are.
The FBI director goes on to say that men of color who do commit crimes might do so in part because they grew up in "environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment." He's right to acknowledge the systematic oppression our country places on people of color, but fails to see that perhaps the greatest perpetrator of that oppression is law enforcement itself. The cop who chooses to stop and frisk a black man over a white one isn't just reacting to racism; he is actively enforcing it.
Early in the speech, Comey bafflingly quoted from "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," a song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. The excerpt served to make the irrelevant point that every person makes unconscious judgements based on race—not just white people, and not just cops.
A second hard truth: Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. We all—white and black—carry various biases around with us. I am reminded of the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q:
Look around and you will find
No one's really color blind.
Maybe it's a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
But the black grocery store clerk who snickers at the white mom with a cart full of mayonnaise and Wonder Bread is a far cry from the white cop who chokes the black dad to death for allegedly selling cigarettes. Comey deserves commendation for talking honestly about race and policing at a time when honest talk is so desperately needed, but if American law enforcement truly wants to change, it needs to understand that while everyone might be a little bit racist, not everyone's racism is created equal.
[Image via AP]