FBI Director James Comey gave a speech at Georgetown University on February 12 that called Americans to face the ‘hard truths’ of racism in America. In a country where the majority is conditioned to ignore the complicated and systemic nature of entrenched racism by the silence of leaders, the speech by the FBI Director appears to be an anomalous challenge to work harder as a society. It appears to be a well-intentioned speech; however, even as he calls on all Americans to take “more time to better understand one another”, he shifts the focus of that endeavor away from law enforcement.
We need to pay attention to Comey’s rhetoric. Notice how he describes the deaths of Black American civilians as exactly that, simply “deaths”: “the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island”. Contrast that to how he describes the deaths of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos: he labels these as “assassinations.” This, the beginning of the substantive portion of Comey’s speech, frames the deaths of two Black American civilians as events with no agents, but frames the deaths of two minority police officers as an event with an agent. Deaths happen. An assassination require an assassin. In this instance, the police officers’ minority status is eclipsed by their status as police officers. Whether or not Comey’s choice of rhetoric was intentional, it is indicative of the depth of systemic racism and authoritarianism within our society: the civilians died; the police officers–authorities in the system–were assassinated.
Comey’s speech acknowledges racial tensions and the historic violence and repression visited upon Black Americans by a white supremacist culture: “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.” Note how that sentence focuses on the past, without acknowledging that law enforcement still enforces a status quo that is “often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.” He shifts the focus of racism in America back in history, onto notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his persecution of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also shifts the focus from law enforcement and implicates other social institutions: “But racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts.” While racial biases do exist in people and professions throughout society, not all people and professions carry guns and are empowered to use them with impunity. Not all people and professions are privileged with a disproportionate level of legal protection from prosecution for misconduct and violence. Police officers currently are.
With his assertion that racial bias infects institutions across the spectrum of American life, Comey almost calls out the systemic nature of racism in America, but he does not proclaim that hard truth. In order to do that, he would need to shift his focus from an acknowledgement of society-wide individual racial bias, or prejudice, to the foundation of racism, a culture of white supremacy.
Comey’s speech is problematic because it appears moral and is ostensibly a challenge for all Americans to work harder to fight racism. But, as often occurs when mainstream institutions define the problem, the burden of the problem is shifted from those with access to power–in this case, police forces across the country–to those marginalized from power:
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. 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.
Changing the legacy of white supremacy is an enormous and complicated challenge that demands the engagement of all Americans. At the same time, acknowleding that those working within the criminal justice system have a specific role and special responsibility in transforming the criminal justice system is not unfair. Demanding accountability, which is what protesters are doing, is fair. What isn’t fair is the abuse of power that happens within various components of the criminal justice system–not only the cops, but the prosecutors and the prisons as well.
Comey’s speech works to indemnify law enforcement by emphasizing its dangers–without similarly addressing the dangers faced by Black and Brown people living in a white supremacist culture; to implicate other institutions that do not have the same responsibilities and power as law enforcement; and again shift the burden and focus to “communities of color”.
And that is not fair.