Editorial: FBI Director Blows It in Race Speech

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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