March 6, 2015
“Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias… We all – white and black – carry various biases around with us. I am reminded of the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: ‘Look around and you will find no one’s really color blind. Maybe it’s a fact we all should face. Everyone makes judgments based on race.’”
– FBI Director James Comey in his speech “Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race,” February 12, 2015
It was in the wake of the protest-fueled aftermaths of the high-profile killings of Black men at the hands of police officers, along with the execution-style murders of two New York City police officers, that the nation’s sitting FBI director marked an unprecedented first. FBI Director James Comey – addressing an auditorium full of Georgetown University students on the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday – delivered an unsparing, timely speech on the alarming state of policing in Black and Brown communities.
Comey, the son of Irish immigrants and the grandson of a police officer, addressed the historically-charged relationship between law enforcement and the communities of color they are sworn to serve and protect, and in doing so, gave his speech an authority that cannot be understated. In fact, he made a sizeable step towards inserting this much-needed analysis into our ongoing conversation on race in America.
Unfortunately, rhetoric, even candid rhetoric on the devastating impact of racism or unconscious racial bias in law enforcement, cannot stop a fatal bullet or bring back those we’ve lost. For Comey’s words to be more than acknowledgment of this dilemma, they must translate into policies that address the unsettling issue of police misconduct in minority communities.
Pointing to the ever-present influence of unconscious racial bias that seeps into the daily interactions between the police and minorities, Comey also recognized that “racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts.” He is right on that score.
According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit racial bias “refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” The police, as well as the communities they serve, both come to the proverbial table with their implicit biases.
Implicit racial bias is not a figment of imagination, and acknowledging its existence can be the difference between life and death for all parties involved. Understanding this, Comey noted that “if we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions, which is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all.”
I applaud the FBI director for calling on the nation’s law enforcement community to do more than simply acknowledge the problem, but to also act on the knowledge we have. In November 2014, the National Urban League released our “10-Point Justice Plan for Police Reform and Accountability.” Among other recommendations, such as outfitting police officers with body cameras and a national comprehensive anti-racial profiling law, we advocated comprehensive retraining of all police officers. We understood then, as we do now, that without addressing implicit racial bias, there is no policing tactic or theory that will change the status quo of law enforcement in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
Comey’s other policy recommendations, including the better and wider collection of data in police-involved shootings and increasing the dialogue between police and the communities they serve, are also initiatives that we put forward in our 10-Point Plan. The plan also called for the implementation of a 21st century community policing model as well as mandatory, uniform FBI reporting and audit of lethal force incidents involving all law enforcement.
While our nation’s conversation on race relations both within and beyond the borders of law enforcement is one we have engaged in for decades. Comey’s voice and ideas are welcomed ones in the ongoing fight for racial equality and justice. But, of course, we need more than voices or ideas; we need a real commitment to policy change that trickles down to police academies, precincts and sheriffs’ offices around this nation.
America is at a crossroads.
We can choose to face and change the legacy of distrust of law enforcement in communities of color and vice versa. We can choose to heal the wounds of that legacy and promote dialogue within these communities and with those charged with their protection. As Comey concluded, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.”
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.