Myths behind the FBI’s director’s “hard truths”

March 3, 2015

Marilena Marchetti breaks down a widely publicized speech by the director of the FBI and finds that beneath the hype is a very familiar message of victim-blaming.

LAST MONTH, FBI Director James Comey was widely praised for giving a "bold" speech titled "Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race."

The "hard truth" that Comey was referring to was the fact that anti-Black racism exists, which says a lot about how successfully the political class has been able to deny the extent of racism in America in the decades since the civil rights movement.

That has been changing thanks to the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, which cast a spotlight on the systematic trauma directed at the Black community by a wide range of institutions. Government officials are clearly feeling the pressure to respond.

IN HIS speech, Comey laid out four "hard truths." First, he acknowledged that the United States has a legacy of oppressing people on the basis of race and national origin:

I am descended from Irish immigrants. A century ago, the Irish knew well how American society--and law enforcement--viewed them: as drunks, ruffians, and criminals. Law enforcement's biased view of the Irish lives on in the nickname we still use for the vehicles we use to transport groups of prisoners. It is, after all, the "paddy wagon."

The Irish had tough times, but little compares to the experience on our soil of Black Americans. 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.

FBI Director James Comey
FBI Director James Comey (Paul Morigi)

Second, Comey referenced scientific studies showing that scope of racial bias among individuals:

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.

Third, the FBI director talked about cops on the job:

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. After years of police work, officers often can't help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel.

A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights. 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 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.

The first three points lead Comey to his final truth: The solution to the strained relationship between police and those communities is for people of color to stop committing so many crimes.

So why has that officer--like his colleagues--locked up so many young men of color?...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...

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 Vlacks 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.

WHAT ARE we to make of all this? In fact, Comey's speech is a sleight of hand. What at first appears to be a refreshing acknowledgement of the obvious racism of so many cops becomes, by the end, a justification for it.

In both New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, police departments have a documented track record of racial harassment via stopping people of color and issuing them traffic tickets and summonses for petty offenses at a disproportionate rate. It was two of these stops last summer that led to confrontations which ended with the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner--killings that pushed the long simmering anger of Black America over the edge and resulted in months of national protests.

The tone of James Comey's speech is a sober recognition that what happened in Ferguson and New York represents a problem with the police--but the content of the speech is precisely the opposite.

Comey's conclusions draw on a long tradition of blaming Black people for the social, economic and political inequality they suffer. His reference to the need to teach young people of color to be "drug-resistant and violence-resistant" is a repackaging of the "culture of poverty" myth that was entrenched in mainstream politics with the "Report on the Negro Family" produced by liberal Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965, a time when civil rights protests in the South were boiling over into urban riots across the North.

Comey isn't the only law enforcement official looking back to Moynihan for help in liberal-sounding ways to deflect rising Black anger.

New York City police chief Bill Bratton offered some hard truths of his own at a Black History Month speech at a Queens Church. "Slavery, our country's original sin," Bratton said, "sat on a foundation codified by laws enforced by police, by slave-catchers."

Like Comey, however, Bratton kept his analysis of institutional police racism strictly in the pages of history, and went on to argue that police need to be more present in nonwhite neighborhoods because that is where crime is disproportionately committed.

THE SPEECHES by Comey and Bratton do reflect that the Black Lives Matter movement has made it more difficult for political figures to deny or ignore the existence racism. But they show how those responsible for law enforcement are still trying to sell the same old victim-blaming politics.

Last month, a panel of young Black activists convened at the Schomburg Center in New York City to have a conversation titled "American Policing: Lessons on Resistance." Not surprisingly, the speakers had some thoughts about the FBI Director's speech.

Philip Agnew, co-founder of the group Dream Defenders, said:

Stokely Carmichael said, "Can a man or women condemn themself to death?" If our governments and our system that governs us were to convict Darren Wilson, they would be convicting and condemning themselves...So who do you blame? You blame the very people who are the victim of your policies. You make them to feel like they are solely responsible for what happens to them.

Cherrell Brown of Equal Justice USA added:

Comey spoke a lot about racial bias, racist people, but what he did not talk about are policies informed by white supremacy and racism--like our Broken Windows policing, like stop-and-frisk, like vertical patrolling. All these politics that are created to curb the violence and crime that happen in sub-par areas with sub-par conditions, instead of actually thinking about actually fixing the sub-par conditions in the areas to begin with.

As Agnew and Brown explained, Comey's speech was far from the "unconventional" and "candid" "milestone" that it was made out to be by so many media reports.

Even Comey's widely praised call for the FBI to collect more accurate data--which would be a good thing--ignored the study conducted by the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization, which found that in 2013, a Black person was killed by a police officer, security guard or vigilante every 28 hours.

"The first step to understanding what is really going on in our communities and in our country," Comey said, "is to gather more and better data related to those we arrest, those we confront for breaking the law and jeopardizing public safety, and those who confront us. 'Data' seems a dry and boring word, but without it, we cannot understand our world and make it better."

But even when hard evidence exists--not only the statistics, but the hard evidence of police murder, like the video of Eric Garner being strangled to death--it doesn't mean police killers are brought to justice or police departments forced to change their racist plicies.

The Black Lives Matter movement should get credit for forcing the question of police institutional racism to be addressed by top law enforcement bureaucrats. But the way it has been addressed is a predictable mix of empty rhetoric, paltry reforms and blaming the oppressed for their oppression.

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