Editorial: FBI Director Blows It in Race Speech

FBI Director James Comey gave an unprecedented speech on racial profiling and tensions amongst law enforcement, but then seemingly excused it all.

Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. Although the title of his column is meant to be humorous, the issues he addresses and the answers he gives to questions are serious—and based on his 16 years of experience publishing DiversityInc. Click here to send your own question to Luke.

Originally published Feb. 17, 2015

In an unprecedented move, FBI Director James Comey addressed a crowd at Georgetown University on the racial tensions and culture of racial profiling amongst the law-enforcement community.

But that’s where Comey made his mistake: He never acknowledged racial profiling as a cultural issue.

Instead of directly approaching the issues, Comey seemed to make excuses for them. Instead of admitting that racial profiling—and, more importantly, what lies behind it—is a cultural issue, he chose to quote a Broadway musical (Avenue Q) and note that “everyone’s a little bit racist.”

“I worry that this incredibly important and difficult conversation about race and policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law-enforcement officers when it should also be about something much harder to discuss,” Comey said. “Debating the nature of policing is very important but I worry that it has become an excuse at times to avoid doing something harder.”

But then he began to provide the excuses.

  • “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”;
  • “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 sinister association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or black”;
  • :A tragedy of American life—one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them—is that young people in ‘those neighborhoods’ too often inherit from that dysfunction a legacy of crime and prison. And 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.”

And this is where Comey’s excuses begin to ignore the underlying cultural problems that lead to the rampant racial profiling that he sorta-kinda admits exists.

America is segregated. It is. In nearly every major city, the population is segregated.

Even in Ferguson, the police station is located in a wealthier, mostly white neighborhood. Michael Brown was shot to death—and police presence was almost nonexistent on the night Darren Wilson’s lack of indictment was announced—in an almost entirely Black neighborhood.

In many cities, that police officer walking down the street won’t see two Black guys on one side and two white guys on the other.

As a result, crime is segregated. Yes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent of the Black Americans who are murdered are killed by other Blacks.

And 83 percent of white murder victims are killed by other whites.

But somehow, on that mysterious street where segregation doesn’t exist, the officer only sees the two Black men as resembling criminals the officer has arrested before.

Maybe it’s because policing policy in his city unfairly targets Blacks and Latinos, e.g., Stop and Frisk (which has been declared unconstitutional) or Broken Windows policing in New York City.

Or maybe it’s because almost every coworker this officer sees on a daily basis is white.

The U.S. Census Bureau has demographic data on police officers in 755 cities nationwide. In three-quarters of them, the percentage of white police officers is higher than the percentage of whites living in the city.

In 23 cities, the percentage of white police officers is three times the percentage of whites in the community.

In 29 cities, there are FIVE times as many.

So, yes, Comey was right in sorta-kinda acknowledging—something the FBI doesn’t do very often—that there are racial disparities and issues that need to be addressed.

He just chose to address the symptoms instead of the cause.

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  • Community policing can go a long way towards ending any kind of profiling. By that I mean going to a police system where there are “neighborhood precincts” and where there are officers who patrol regularly on foot as well as in cars. This enables the officers to get to know the neighborhood and the people.

    In my own neighborhood we have a neighborhood fire station. The fire fighters have regular open house and people in the neighborhood can get to know them and vice versa. In contrast, the nearest police precinct is miles away and the only time we see the police is when they are in cars. We have zero police walking a beat in my neighborhood. This puts the police at a disadvantage and it almost invites profiling.

    • Luke Visconti

      You are so right. I lived in a small city in New Jersey (New Brunswick) for five years. There was a lot of violent crime in New Brunswick, most of it drug-related (intermodal transportation and distribution of drugs). The police hid behind tinted windows in their cars–you never saw a police officer on the street. What I learned firsthand was that my neighbors were very nice people, but the impersonal, detached policing style led to criminals coming to New Brunswick to ply their trade–especially on the weekend, when the already scarce cops were absolutely not to be found.

      When our office was in Newark, the police were so detached from the street that the one time I saw a uniformed police officer on the sidewalk (one time in over five years), I asked the police officer if he were lost and if he could use some help. It was sarcastic, the police officer knew it, he knew that I knew it–but he also knew I was right. Newark has about 100 times the murder rate per capita of Manhattan. A body has to be accounted for; the rest of their crime statistics are a joke. If you are mugged or your car is broken into in Newark, it will take you hours to get a cop to come to do a report; most people give up. Voila! No report, no crime. They just made a change: Now for crimes like mugging or car theft, you have to go to the courthouse to file a report! Gee, let me see. I got mugged on Thursday night, so I’m going to come back to Newark on Friday and wait on line to file a report? Policeman, puhleeeeeeze.

      One more story: I was taking a car service to the airport and the driver kept yes- and no-sir-ing me. I asked him if he was retired military or retired police; he asked if it were that obvious. I said yes and he responded retired police, Trenton (which is a horrible, dangerous city). He went on to tell me that he was getting a Ph.D. in criminology and driving to make money as he could. I asked him what he missed most about being a cop, and he said the people in the neighborhood he patrolled–and went on to talk about how nice they were and how he missed seeing them every day. That’s the kind of guy you want as police chief. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Michael Nila

    Being a police officer who agrees with many of your points I think your headline and insights are unfair. It was a bold and unprecedented action for Director Comey to address the issues of race and police. He took a first step by calling attention, from his place of credibility, to an issue that policing must finally address. He should be given credit and not criticized. Perhaps he did not go far enough, and perhaps we wish he would have been stronger, but I applaud him. And I hope that his courage will give strength to other voices to take the message further.

    It is this kind of criticism that causes police officers to feel they can never do anything right and lends credence to us vs. them. We need to learn to embrace each other – police and community, with all our faults and imperfections – let’s join hands and have each other’s backs. Maybe then we can have community trust!

    • Luke Visconti

      Well, he’s being paid to be FBI director. Although I give him credit for saying something, he should have done some homework and gotten it right.

      If the director of the FBI doesn’t have anyone around him to point out the basic flaws in his reasoning, that’s a flaw that tells you why we’re in such deep trouble in this country. If you go to the FBI’s website, it looks like of the top 17 people, 14 are white men and three are white women (no obviously Latino names). Preposterously flawed demographics, leading to a deeply flawed speech. The director also has a greater burden of being right when it comes to race relations because the FBI was so engrossed in Dr. Martin Luther King’s private life and in threatening and smearing him.

      However, the fact that you are on this website gives me great hope. I intensely dislike the state of police relations in this country, because every indication I have is that the overwhelming majority of police officers truly want to serve and protect. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Getting cutesy with statistics, Luke?

    While it is true that “somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent of the black Americans who are murdered are killed by other blacks. And 83 percent of white murder victims are killed by other whites,” blacks murder blacks at about 3 times as often as whites murder whites. Hence blacks, at about 15% of the American population make up about 45% of the murder victims in this country. Using your numbers, then, which show about 90% of blacks being murdered by blacks, black people in America probably commit murder at about 3 times the rate whites do. Which might help to explain why New YorK City’s former mayor, Mike Bloomberg recently said, according to the Aspen Times, “Cities need to get guns out of [the] … hands of persons who are male, minority, and between the ages of 15 and 25” in order to effectively reduce the national murder rate.

    Stop and Frisk, maybe?

    • Luke Visconti

      I’m too old to be cute. According to the FBI, there were 6,261 Black murder victims and 5,537 white murder victims in 2013, so you’re right: Blacks probably commit murder at three times the rate of white people. But the victims of Black homicides are almost all Black. Our neighborhoods are similarly segregated.


      But if you’re going to say that Stop and Frisk is the solution, I would tell you that it’s far more effective to dam the river closer to the headstream. If you criminalized straw sales back to the manufacturer’s CEO, you would end the billion-dollar gun-running industry in a week. It’s very easy to do this—you can trace serial numbers to where the gun was last purchased legally. You’ll find that most of the pistols used by criminals to kill other people were sold in a handful of gun shops that cater to straw purchases. You can do the same for ammunition—every round can have a forensic tag in the gunpowder or on the case (or both) that will enable law enforcement to track the ammunition down to its last legal point of distribution. If the manufacturer’s CEO knew that he was going to be responsible for the ultimate sale of his product, he would make sure the sales were legal. As a legal gun owner, I know there’s an amazing amount of regulation around legal ownership and use of guns. There’s nothing that a lawful gun owner has to fear from this kind of regulation, which I believe falls well within the Second Amendment’s language around a “well regulated militia.”

      But there’s too much “gold in them thar hills” for the powers that be to take a logical approach—and it’s far more convenient and easy to take a racist approach. So we have the spectacle of a majority-white police force stopping teenagers in neighborhoods that are almost 100 percent not white, and asking them to turn out their pockets. If there happens to be a joint in their pocket—no gun, mind you, just a joint—they get a record, which truncates career opportunities. There is no distinction in Stop and Frisk. If the ostensible reason is looking for guns, then anything
      else found should be ignored, but it’s not. There is no Stop and Frisk in wealthy white suburbs—but there’s far more money for drug consumption there.

      Just in case you don’t recall, the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, the Fifth Amendment is about due process and search warrants based on probable cause, and the Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive fines.

      So we allow the white gun and ammunition manufacturer CEOs to escape justice and instead penalize our youth. What a dumb idea. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • But really, what does this say about President Obama and his administration if he himself as a Black man employs a White man feeling this way?

    The director and President are apart of an institution greater than the FBI, DOJ and Presidency; no elected or appointed official are willing to admit exists or confront (White supremacy).

    Kudos President Obama representing South Side Chicago as a state representative, a Chicago community activist and US Senator for Illinois and never making law enforcement brutality and profiling a part of your 2008 presidential political initiatives. Thank you and kudos for timidly giving voice to matters like this where the narrative should have been repeated over and over again. How you can pull this off serving as community activist and an elected official while one of the most inhuman, corrupt law enforcement agencies known as the Chicago Police Department policies the area you represented and served is absolutely ridiculous and beyond rational understanding. This simply shows a level of disregard to the greater American populace regarding public safety organizations engagement with the public?

    So it’s no wonder why we have a FBI Director unable and most likely a lack of desire to address race and racial profiling as interrelated because we have a president unwilling to closely monitor his appointments because he himself isn’t willing to address these issues head on.

    Leadership starts from the top. Or at least that’s what they keep telling me.

    • President Obama speaks up on race and gets called out by “the greater American populace” as a divider of our nation. Sadly, the city of Chicago and the minorities that are disenfranchised by the PD everywhere everyday are also not the “the greater American populace.” If they were, Obama would have been giving speeches on this everyday for the past four years since the late Trayvon Martin was murdered. Obama, especially as a black male himself, is not able to speak on racial issues in this country with regard to law enforcement and the law system itself the way truly wishes to. Why? Because Obama is the president of the United States, not the king or lord or dictator. Racial issues only apply to a minority of U.S. citizens and therefore the importance of said issues will only be truly understood by that minority. From looking into the past 8 years of his presidency, you can tell just how little power HE really has himself. The commander in chief is supposed to be the biggest fan of law enforcement and the system of laws he represents. He can work to change those laws, but if he is seen as someone who takes a side other than the side of the police department, he gets rebuked and scolded by law enforcement families all over the country.

      You’re referring to a country we don’t currently live in, Lee. We live in a country where as soon as someone in law enforcement gets murdered by someone of color claiming no affiliation with any group, after 4 years of peacefully protesting, the #blacklivesmatter movement becomes a “terrorist organization” to government officials across the country. Obama being in the white house doesn’t abolish systemic racism, and that racism is what stifles his voice from delivering the messages that you and I, and everyone else would love to hear.

  • The problem in my opinion, is the justice system and the media. If police officer’s are not being held accountable by the criminal justice system for murder (of black men), Then the murders will continue.
    If attorneys are dependent on the boy’s in blue to get them reelected how can they indict or prosecute that group.
    Whites killing Whites and Blacks killing Blacks are criminal acts. We have police and the criminal justice system to combat crime. But we have no one to police the police.
    The media continuously paints young black men as thugs, gangbangers, and a menace to society. The media almost always points to some negative activities of the victim (young black male) prior to the incident to validate the murder. With evidence clearly showing murder officers are not prosecuted correctly or charged correctly or indicted at all. Then the media has no follow up or continuing story.
    I do not agree with shooting anyone, especially a member of law enforcement. That’s appalling. So should Black men keep praying, peacefully marching and wait for their turn?
    Any type of resolution has to come from the influence of White America. But in my opinion the media has to guide that influence.

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