When James Comey bluntly addressed racial biases in policing Thursday, several outlets dubbed his speech candid for an F.B.I. director. Yet, while his remarks were “unusually frank and personal,” the content of his speech was based on information we’ve already known for decades. At one point, Comey also appeared to lay much of the blame for racial bias in policing at the feet of young men of color themselves.
Speaking to students at Georgetown University, Comey laid out several “hard truths” about race relations in America, including unconscious racial biases that we have. “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,” he said, before quoting lyrics from the Broadway show, Avenue Q.
But his comments weren’t groundbreaking. Extensive research shows that African Americans are perceived as more threatening than their white counterparts — which extends to policing. Officers who were bluntly asked “Who looks criminal?” for a study chose more black faces than white. When primed with information about a crime, they pictured a “black face that was even more strongly representative of the black racial category than the Black face to which they were actually exposed.” And children are not exempt from bias: black boys are perceived as older and guiltier than white boys, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association last year. Those police perceptions contribute to a skewed justice system, from arrest rates to sentencing patterns.
Comey may deserve applause for addressing this hard truth, but he wasn’t actually providing new information.
Additionally, many outlets overlooked a moment when Comey seemed to excuse police discrimination and even blame it, at least in part, on the conduct of black and brown men. “Likewise, 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,” he claimed. “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.”
Young men of color, in other words, share the burden generated by other young men of color’s crimes — even if they themselves are innocent of any wrongdoing.
To his credit, Comey does point out some of the systemic problems that have led to this moment of crisis, such as “environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment.” He explains that America inherited a legacy of prejudice, and acknowledges his own “affection” for officers, which was a breath of fresh air for many.
Still, a closer look at the speech’s content shows that his speech did not break any new ground. It merely recounted information that is well-known to criminal justice researchers, activists, and minority communities.
Watch the full speech below.