FBI Director James Comey said Thursday that racial bias is a problem in the United States that extends beyond law enforcement and the country is at a “crossroads” on matters of race following the deaths of several unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.
In remarks prepared for a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Comey said racial bias is as much an epidemic in academia or the arts as it is among police officers.
But he said that the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, and the nationwide protests that followed, have forced the U.S. to confront hard truths.
“Serious debates are taking place about how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve, and about the appropriate use of force, and about real and perceived biases, both within and outside of law enforcement,” Comey said.
“At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups,” he added. Comey referenced his Irish ancestry, saying at some police viewed them as “drunks, ruffians and criminals.”
But “little compares to the experience on our soil of black Americans,” he said, adding that law enforcement’s role in that experience, historically and in recent times, should be remembered.
Comey said that biases against certain groups are part of life, but how we behave in response to instinctive reactions based on race can be controlled.
“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,” Comey said.
“But if we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions,” he added.
Like most of society, members of law enforcement also harbor biases, Comey said, even though he said the career “overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living.”
But the U.S. has to face a “hard truth,” he said. With time, many police officers become cynical and develop “mental shortcuts.”
Those can range from assuming everyone is lying and that no suspect is innocent, to believing — because they often police communities of color — that young men of color commit all the crime, Comey said.
“A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible … the two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. The two young white men on the other side of the street — even in the same clothes — do not,” Comey said. “The officer does not make the same sinister association about the two white guys.”
The main reason, however, so many people of color are locked up is not because police are turning a blind eye to white crime, Comey said. Instead, it is more likely because the percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for blacks as it is for whites.
That’s why initiatives like President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper,” designed to address the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color, are so important, Comey said. Once equal education, employment and other opportunities are offered to these communities, people of color will be less likely to have interactions with police, he added.
“We have spent the 150 years since Lincoln spoke making great progress, but along the way treating a whole lot of people of color poorly. And law enforcement was often part of that poor treatment,” Comey said.
“And we — especially those of us who enjoy the privilege that comes with being the majority — must confront the biases that are inescapable parts of the human condition,” he said.