FBI Director James Comey gave an address at Georgetown University on Thursday titled "Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race." The New York Times characterized it as "unusually candid." Our own Shaun King called it "brave, but clumsy." I agree with both assessments, in particular Shaun's point that Comey's call for all police departments to provide accurate, comprehensive data about police shootings of citizens is "significant."
Let's begin with a truth that is both obvious and easy to forget. Speeches by politicians and government officials do not have telling the truth as their primary goal. That doesn't mean that they don't seek to tell the truth. Some do so while others, well, not so much. Rather than truth telling per se, political figures speak in order to make a specific impact. The question they ask themselves is: What information can I present, and -- most importantly -- what is the best way to present it in order to achieve my goal, to make the impact I want to make? I believe that Comey had a very specific goal in mind for his speech, and that goal is to change the behavior of police officers.
What is the most effective way Comey could get cops to really hear his message? Before we go there, let's start by discussing a way that would not work. That way is to tell the police that they are a bunch of stone-cold racists and that that's why they are killing so many unarmed black men and boys. And let's make something clear: No mainstream civil rights leader or politician is saying that. But that message is one that police officers are primed for and ready to reject. Right off the bat, look what Comey does:
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. Debating the nature of policing is very important, but I worry that it has become an excuse, at times, to avoid doing something harder.
Is it true that the debate has become focused on cops' "nature and character"? Of course not. But by contrasting himself to that straw man, Comey gains the trust of his target audience -- the police officers whose behavior he knows must change -- and makes them far more willing to listen to the message he's going to deliver.
Right after Comey reaches a hand out to the police, right after they grasp it in solidarity and let down their guard a bit, here's what he tells them:
First, all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.
Now that's a truth the cops may not have wanted to hear. Maybe now their backs are getting up a bit. So Comey shifts gears again, talking about his own Irish immigrant ancestors and the discrimination they faced from society and even from the police departments in which many of their descendants now serve. The hand is re-extended. But then he returns to the real topic of the speech:
The Irish had tough times, but little compares to the experience on our soil of black Americans. That experience should be part of every American's consciousness, and law enforcement's role in that experience -- including in recent times -- must be remembered. It is our cultural inheritance.
One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve and protect cannot forget it, either. So we must talk about our history. It is a hard truth that lives on.
A second hard truth: 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.
Now he's getting to the point. After having told the cops that he rejects the idea that the problem lies with their "nature and character," he tells them that the problem does, in fact, lie with their behavior, a behavior influenced by a culture of white supremacy. (He doesn't use that term, because it would cause a chunk of his audience to put up their defenses and tune him out.) The cops don't hate blacks, but they sure don't treat them fairly. And that's what Comey is trying to get his target audience to see.
In keeping with this rhetorical strategy, after having delivered a challenge, Comey must once again offer an olive branch. He talks about how "we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us" and even quotes from the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from the musical Avenue Q. Then there's a little self-deprecating humor about his lack of singing ability. Nice touch. The hand is extended before he returns to the real message:
[I]f 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. Although the research may be unsettling, it is what we do next that matters most.
And then Comey extends the hand yet again, pointing out that cops aren't the only people in our society who are biased, and praises them as being motivated by a desire to help. He delves into why police officers develop that bias, even going so far as to, if not justify it, at least spread responsibility for it beyond the men and women who carry the shield.
Comey talks about the fact that most cops in urban areas see that "a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color." The officers -- "people of good will" -- become cynical and start treating all young men of color they encounter in a different way than they would treat "two white men on the other side of the street -- even in the same clothes." He says that such mistreatment "becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights." But not Comey's. Although he shows he understands where cops are coming from and why they may do what they do, he also condemns this mistreatment, calling it "easy but wrong." Comey further demands that police officers understand the consequences and "come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve."
The next section of the speech explores why officers in urban departments are arresting so many young black and brown men. Comey has already said that the mistreatment of these young men by the police is a real problem. Now he again extends the olive branch to the cops whose wrong behavior he is trying to change. It's not only their fault, he says, and better training and monitoring of police actions wouldn't solve the problem completely. And here comes the part of the speech that Shaun King found clumsy, and, as I said, I have no problem with that assessment.
Comey says that we -- and he specifically praises President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper Community Challenge" for targeting the problem -- must address "the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color." Comey talks about all the things they lack, from good role models to good schools to economic opportunity. But he doesn't say why poor, urban, minority neighborhoods lack those things.
Had Comey come to Georgetown to tell the truth about the plight of young black and brown people in America, he would have explicitly discussed racial discrimination -- both the legacy of past discrimination that continues to have a deeply negative effect on African Americans' opportunities in the present as well as the persistence of active discrimination occurring right now. But that's not what this speech was about. This speech was not about educating cops about why young black men are in the situation they are in. This speech was about getting cops to stop shooting them. Eyes on the prize.
The speech then gets personal, as Comey talks about Pop Comey, his grandfather who wore the blue for four decades and became the top cop in Yonkers, New York. He goes on to urge everyone to recognize those whom they might see as opponents in this debate for what they are: people. Citizens need to understand what police are feeling, the "risks and dangers" they bear to "keep us safe." That's a fine message; empathy is always a worthy thing to encourage. Comey also calls on police to do the same:
Those of us in law enforcement must redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice. We must better understand the people we serve and protect -- by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us.
If a speech can get every cop to do that, James Comey will have made a real contribution to the cause of Black Lives Matter.