On February 12, FBI Director Comey spoke to Georgetown students, the national media, and streaming live viewers in an effort to explain racial profiling in the eyes of law enforcement. Admitting to biases is a good step but is it enough?
On February 12, FBI Director James B. Comey met with Georgetown University President DeGioia for a town hall about race, police, civil unrest and the lack of representation. His speech was both polarizing and oversimplifying one of America’s most prominent issues facing the country at the moment: living as a person of color in a country willing to shoot first and question later.
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Speaking with eloquence, the government agent stressed a need for communities to recognize each other, to stand together in the face of a national epidemic. After all, America’s been focused on racial profiling for roughly 239 years—officially separated from Britain’s political structure, that is. Historical research and common sense says racism did not just begin the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed. So when the head of one of the national defense bodies talked, people listened.
With a deprecating smile and mild but sometimes impassioned plea, the director urged the national audience to be aware that statistically, there are going to be racists—after all, he quoted Avenue Q’s "Everyone’s A Little Racist" for the student body making up the audience. He must care if he’s quoting a pop culture reference.
And he explained how the Irish faced plaguing troubles in the country. Of course, he didn’t mention how the Irish were once considered to be as unequal as blacks in mid-19th century. But over time, cultural attitudes shifted and the Irish worked against the freedom of slaves before the Civil War. And that angry mobs were not uncommon, like the one in New York City in 1863. In the end, the best way to distract two oppressed groups to turn them against each other while the oppressor lives in relative safety from the unrest for a hundred or so years later.
He admits that many law enforcement officers “develop different flavors of cynicism that we work hard to resist because they can be lazy mental shortcuts.” Then adamantly proclaims “criminal suspects routinely lie about their guilt, and nearly everybody we charge is guilty.” The short cut turns into ‘every suspect is guilty’ and therefore doesn’t deserve credit, making it easy for “some folks in law enforcement to assume that everybody is lying and that no suspect, regardless of their race, could be innocent.” Which seems to be a rather sweeping generalization that takes away officer responsibility in understanding human behavior while implying law enforcement is nothing more than animals with little self-control. Sounds familiar.
However, racism is a problem. “The officer does not make the same association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or black. And that drives different behavior. 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.”
Admitting that “two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up” doesn’t explain the nature of representational justice in the American legal system. In 2013, Pew Research reported the rise of incarceration rates for black men in the United States: 678 white male inmates out of 100,000 U.S. residents compared to 4,349 black men. The number is staggering when you consider that the incarceration rate for black men in jail was six times that of a white male.
So how is America supposed to change implicit bias in the judicial government bodies and law enforcement?
In response to a student asking how to open a dialogue, to create and foster open communication without recrimination, Director Comey admitted that the area wasn’t really in his wheelhouse—but still provided an answer since he was there to offer some form of honesty and transparency. One of the components to the question involved media representation.
Claiming that “we own the media outlets” and “they reflect us,” Comey opened himself up to criticism. Who is “we”? Certainly not the African-American cases he cited, like Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Gardner in New York City, who were demonized in the media when the white cops were eventually not indicted for murder—even as Gardner’s case was filmed and showed police brutality.
“I Can’t Breathe” became both a mantra of representation and a tool of mocking by certain media outlets. Who was Comey referencing again?
Was it cisgender, straight white males of affluent backgrounds? Or simply cisgender, straight, white males? Either one probably falls close to the truth given the actions of Craig Stephen Hicks, who murdered three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, earlier this week to nearly a media blackout.
The victims were newlywed couple 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Bakarat and 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad, as well as Yusor’s 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.
Murdered in summary style over undefined reasons, the media only covered the topic as social media pushed and demanded accountability. And the ratings tragedy seems to bring. Each one of the victims cared about their community, known for giving back without any question, and looking to leave the world in a better place. Did Comey mean Muslims were represented in the media? Or did he mean Hicks? Because an attack on Muslims not in a warzone didn’t seem to be a priority.
Of course, more often than not in the United States, large scale violence, like public mass shootings, will be most likely committed by a white male. Even Congressional research agrees. Yet black men are in jail six times more often than white men. Statistically, shouldn’t cop bias show a reason for a double-take to those “two white men on the other side of the street—even in the same clothes”?
The media usually labels the white murderer a “lone wolf,” with no attribution to behavior except possible mental issues as an excuse. Anyone remember James Egan Holmes and the Aurora shooting at "The Dark Knight Rises" screening? The media instantly focused on possible mental illness as a scapegoat for the actions of a man that killed indiscriminately. Right now, the Holmes trial jury selection emphasizes the difference in mental illness severity and responsibility of actions. But on the flip side, Brown and Gardner were labeled as trouble makers and thugs. Hicks, however, simply wanted to end a neighborly dispute by shooting three people in the head.
So who is the criminal again?
According to the FBI director, Healy Hall’s history at the Georgetown “struck me as an appropriate place to talk about the difficult relationship between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to serve and protect.” After all, Healy Hall is named after Patrick Francis Healy, who is the first African American to earn a PhD and the first person of color to be president of Georgetown or “any predominantly white university. “
If that is really the case, why does he only see a “disconnect between police agencies and many citizens—predominantly in communities of color” in places like Ferguson or New York City? Did he not map out the cases in the past two or three years on a board and see the American problem is not limited to the local level.
Comey tells an anecdotal story on how new agents and analysts must study the government's interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and visit the memorial in Washington, DC. And that he keeps a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval for wiretapping Dr. King’s telephone—based purely on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s unproven assertion of “communist influence in the racial situation.” In the Cold War, the action would be a gold star to move forward and not require any real examination of underlying biases and racism.
“I worry that this incredibly important and incredibly 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.”
Perhaps the director and agents should also visit the new Civil Rights museum in Atlanta, home to the civil rights leader, if they still can’t understand or quantify why people of color no longer trust law enforcement. It is one thing to say “we must talk about our history,” but another to actually open the dialogue. He also strongly believes that law enforcement “must work to see the world through you.”
Where is the proof of law enforcement officials actually taking the full story into account before implementing shoot-to-kill, however? Police officer after police officer walks free after committing acts of lethal force.
“Relationships are hard. Relationships require work. So let’s begin that work. It is time to start seeing one another for who and what we really are.” If relationships are hard, perhaps a time of listening to comments without defending unconscionable actions, such as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice because being a hero is more important than stopping to assess a situation, is in order. A progressive action that the #Ferguson movement has been noticing and calling for since August.
Comey believes the lack of truth and connection is American citizens’ unintentional fault while seemingly taking some of the responsibility. "Media's fractionalized because of us."
Again, who is this “we” that Comey is speaking of? People of color are barely viewed in media, especially women of color, and communities are often regulated to stereotype or forced to defend the atypical actions outside of the Cosby Show formula.
And as for fractionalized, prominent black artists made a few stands at the Grammys earlier this week. Perhaps he missed Beyoncé, Common and Pharrell Williams’ performances. Or Prince’s dry, but accurate comments. Tumblr will catch him up if he is in need of a refresher course.
“But racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts.” Well, if it’s in all areas, there’s no problem, then. “In fact, I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living—people who risk their lives because they want to help other people.”
Tell that to Eric Gardner’s widow, or the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Tell that to the millions of people living in the country that are taught at an early age how to handle all encounters with police because profiling will happen. It’s never a matter of if. Only when.
“They don’t sign up to be cops in New York or Chicago or L.A. to help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people. And they do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color.”
#BlackLivesMatter was hijacked and mutated into #AllLivesMatter after a non-people of color objected to highlighting the systematic racial profiling and murder at the hands of those meant to serve and protect. Were those on the rewritten hashtag speaking out for more representation and less fear of those with autonomous authority?
Being an ally in helping eliminate the inequality of minorities’ means you stay silent a being helpednd stand next to those being persecuted—backup only when asked, except sometimes that doesn’t work.
FBI director's comments are cautious and I don't agree w/ some of his exonerative statements re: police but nonetheless a good start.— Jay Claire (@JayCIaire) February 13, 2015
For example, when the government speaks as if all experiences are equal, implying that officers naturally become cynical because of patrols “where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color.” And then turns around and says young men of color “lack all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted.”
Again with that royal we. Who is this singular “we”? Especially as the Comey says, “let me be transparent about my affection for cops” because he comes from a family of law enforcement and respects his grandfather’s office. How many people have a deep affinity for the law?
Without any sense of irony, the director ponders, “Perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are. We simply must see the people we serve.” Yet he demands those who have been hunted, profiled, and treated to systematic abuse to also see law enforcement’s risks as well. “They need to understand the difficult and frightening work they do to keep us safe.”
The death toll sends a different message altogether.
James Comey is the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, a federal government body meant to protect those in danger. But how does one feel safe when those given the duty of protection deserves accolades simply by job without discussing the layers of racism that have created the image envisioned?
Carefully straddling the verbal line of reconciliation, Comey seems to fall on the side of law enforcement—a reality of ‘protect one’s own’—and defending a high murder rate committed by those the local and national citizens’ payroll.
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