F.B.I. Director James Comey’s recent speech on race and crime has been praised for its supposed candor and direct engagement with uncomfortable truths.
There, Comey deployed the en vogue language of the moment when he spoke about “unconscious” racial bias. He also admitted the obvious:
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.
For many Americans, the country’s police are increasingly—and with good reason in the era of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many other black boys, girls, men, and women who have been killed and otherwise brutalized by thug cops—viewed as illegitimate, not deserving of the public trust, and racist.
In response to this reality, Comey is presenting himself as “Officer Friendly”, a fair and reasonable person who will reorient
’s police so that they can
truly serve and protect all Americans equally on both sides of the colorline. America
James Comey is no Serpico--the brave police whistleblower.
He is an inside the beltway bureaucratic reformer.
Systems reproduce themselves; if an individual proves themselves to be outside of the norms and traditions of a social system they will be replaced.
Historically and in the present,
police have served the interests of the rich and the powerful. America America’s police are also a social institution
that was founded in the crucible of race and white supremacy—modern policing in
has its origins in the slave patrols of the antebellum South. They continue
this role as enforcers of a social order and hierarchy that disadvantages the
poor and non-whites. United States
Because he is one of the titular heads of this system, Comey cannot engage in radical truth-telling. Moreover, the “hard truths” that Comey supposedly offered rest upon a number of lies, distortions, and willful misrepresentations of the facts about race and crime in the
. United States
Director Comey’s speech is a reflection of an American post civil rights era and its dominant regime of colorblind racism.
His comments on race and crime are hobbled by the common sense assumption that “both sides do it”, that somehow African-Americans and other people of color are somehow “responsible” for white racism, and that the grievances and justice claims of non-whites are somehow equivalent to the racial resentment of white people towards those justice claims.
This is a common trope. For example, President Barack Obama marshaled this problematic logic in his much discussed 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech on race.
Likewise, Comey does the same here:
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. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us. I am reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q:
“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Part of it goes like this:
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.
No one’s really color blind.
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.
But if we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions, which is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all. Although the research may be unsettling, it is what we do next that matters most.
Comey is correct in highlighting how implicit bias against black people is endemic across American society. But in keeping with the colorblind racism frame, “we all” works to flatten out the degree and range of how subconscious racial bias actually functions in American society.
Research on implicit bias demonstrates that a very high percentage of white Americans possess anti-black sentiments. Whites have much higher levels of anti-black sentiment than African-Americans have towards white people. Research on and racial attitudes also demonstrates that white people feel less “warmth” and “closeness” towards black people, than blacks do towards white folks.
Tragically, white supremacy is such a powerful force in American life and culture that approximately 50 percent of blacks have internalized racism as measured by implicit bias tests.
A basic definition of racism is “prejudice plus power”. The consequences of implicit bias are not felt equally across the colorline. As a function of the particular historic, political, and other arrangements of power in the
, racism is a
particular problem of character and behavior for White America. United States
Comey—like other opinion leaders in post civil rights America—makes one group’s (here: white folks) particular sins into the sins of all. This is a common deflection that sustains white supremacy (through institutional and personal acts of white privilege) as the dominant social order in the
. United States
At the heart of Comey’s speech on race and crime is an ugly and onerous lie that is jaw dropping in its brazenness.
It is also the only expected and viable answer for a bureaucrat who is a spokesperson for a system of punishment and “justice” that is one of the primary means through which white supremacy has been deployed, and the colorline enforced, in the United States (and the West, more generally).
Comey asks the following question, in response to which he offers a specious answer:
So why has that officer—like his colleagues—locked up so many young men of color? 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.
Comey, with his easy access to crime statistics, and mountains of evidence about racism in the American criminal justice system, must know that the above answer is duplicitous and a gross misrepresentation of the facts.
As documented by essential works like The New Jim Crow, The Color of Crime, and Slavery by Another Name, as well as advocacy and research groups such as The Sentencing Project, the American legal system consistently punishes African-Americans and Latinos much more harshly than white people for the same crimes.
Research by the Vera Institute for Justice details how racism is operative at almost every level of the American criminal justice system from the initial arrest by beat cops to arrest a person through to sentencing, prosecution, and parole.
Police have an extraordinary amount of discretion in terms of who they decide to arrest, interrogate, and harass. As has been widely discussed by the American news media, “stop and frisk” programs disproportionately target black and Latino men. But, based on data from those programs, while innocent young men of color are much more likely to be stopped, it is whites who are much more likely to have illegal drugs or weapons on their person.
Comey suggests that police and other authorities are not “turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers”. Again, this claim is inaccurate.
“Crime” is a social construct: it varies across time and place. Crime is also a reflection of the dominant social order and given regime(s) of Power.
In all, what constitutes “crime” in the
is both racialized and class biased. United States
Police and law enforcement do in fact “turn a blind” eye to white criminals. The white criminals who destroyed the American economy through fraud and other illegal acts have not been punished. White people have higher rates of drug use in the
African-Americans and other people of color. However, the country’s prisons
are full of black and brown people. United States
The white racial frame has even robbed American public discourse of the language to discuss the fact that there are a myriad of crimes (mass shootings, treason, domestic terrorism, etc.) that are overwhelmingly committed by white people. We have the language of “black crime”; there is no equivalent speech for “white crime”.
And this does not include the lived experiences of black and brown folks, now documented via video and digital media, and circulated by Social Media and other means across what Richard Iton termed “the Black Superpublic”, of police harassing, and in some cases, killing innocent people of color.
Digital media and the surveillance society have also provided repeated, concrete, and substantive examples of white people acting in entitled and privileged ways relative to police authority—walking with guns in public; shooting at police; aiming weapons at federal authorities; verbally provoking and challenging police—that would result in a non-white person being jailed, beaten, or perhaps even killed if they dared to do the same things.
Not surprisingly, Comey claims that the most important “hard truth” which must be engaged about race and crime is “black pathology” and “bad culture”. This is a foundational element in the colorblind racist logic of the post civil rights era:
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.
So many young men of color become part of that officer’s life experience because so many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment—they lack all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted. 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 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.
Comey has removed the obligation of the police, as public servants and well compensated employees who chose a profession that gives them great power of authority, to treat all people in a professional and responsible manner regardless of their supposed class or racial backgrounds.
Furthermore, in his speech he uses a version of the white paranoiac gaze, one which suggests that black folks are treated unfairly (and badly) by the police because the former are “asking for it”.
From this logic, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, and so many other victims of police thuggery are somehow made responsible for the conditions of their own killing. Professionalism and enforcing the law in a fair and equal way should not be contingent on geography, neighborhood demographics, or assumptions made by a police officer about the “bad culture” of the people who live there.
Like all Americans, the vast majority of African Americans are honest and law abiding citizens. Reversing responsibility for a racist criminal justice system by placing the onus on the black community to prevent its own abuse by the police is a type of immoral and cowardly group punishment.
And of course, as a representative of police authority, Comey inserts the obligatory appeal to (white) police victimology:
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.
Early in his speech, F.B.I. Director James Comey also makes the following statement:
With the death of Michael Brown in
Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in Staten
Island, the ongoing protests throughout the country, and the
assassinations of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, we are at a
crossroads. As a society, we can choose to live our everyday lives, raising our
families and going to work, hoping that someone, somewhere, will do something
to ease the tension—to smooth over the conflict. We can roll up our car
windows, turn up the radio and drive around these problems, or we can choose to
have an open and honest discussion about what our relationship is today—what it
should be, what it could be, and what it needs to be—if we took more time to
better understand one another.
There, Comey plants the seeds for the confused and dishonest representation of the realities of race, the colorline, and law enforcement in the
that follows in the remainder of his speech. United States
The systematic and centuries-long harassment, killing, and racist treatment of the black community by
’s police have been a
standing public policy and norm. Officers Liu and Ramos were killed by a lone,
deranged gunman. The latter event would have likely seen the shooter
incarcerated and severely punished (assuming he survived his encounter with the
police). New York
Police who treat people of color in brutal and horrific ways are rarely if ever held accountable for their deeds. Comey suggests that black and brown folks need to better “understand” the police. In reality, as a necessary life and survival skill, non-whites, black folks in particular, have a deep and profound understanding of the police because they are treated unfairly by them.