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What the FBI Chief Got Right—and Wrong—About Race and Police

James Comey insisted that if citizens saw things from a beat cop's perspective, they'd be more sympathetic.

FBI Director James Comey gave a bold speech about race and law enforcement Thursday. It's a thoughtful address, and Comey has carefully considered the issues at hand, but there are reasons to question whether he understands the problem in the first place.

Comey's speech at Georgetown University—you can read the full remarks as prepared here—grapples with the elaborate knot of problems involving communities of color and the cops. He seemed genuinely concerned about the tensions between the two groups and spoke with sympathy about why there is so little trust between them. (He also, amusingly, quoted the Avenue Q classic "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," acknowledging the role of implicit bias.)

Most importantly, Comey called for moving past individual blame and looking for more systemic answers. But he placed a heavy burden on communities of color to solve the problem, while deflecting police responsibility and insisting that if citizens saw things from a beat cop's perspective, they'd be more sympathetic.

"Unfortunately, in places like Ferguson and New York City, and in some communities across the nation, there is a disconnect between police agencies and many citizens—predominantly in communities of color," Comey said. He pointed to the way his predecessor J. Edgar Hoover pursued Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of the sort of policing that creates distrust. And as he said, distrust can cut both ways, with some officers falling into a rational cynicism:

For example, criminal suspects routinely lie about their guilt, and the people we charge are overwhelmingly guilty. That makes it easy for folks in law enforcement to assume that everybody is lying and that no suspect, regardless of their race, could be innocent. Easy, but wrong.

Still, most cops aren't bad people—and most of them aren't racist: "They don’t sign up to be cops in New York or Chicago or L.A. because they want to help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people."

You will of course find people who believe that cops are individually racist. While they're often the noisiest voices, they don't necessarily speak to the consensus. Many people would agree that on an officer-by-officer basis, racists aren't the problem. The broader issues include the disparate arrest rates between whites and blacks for the same crime. One prime example is marijuana, where usage rates are comparable among whites and blacks, but blacks are four times more likely to be arrested. About 50 percent of officers on the beat for the NYPD are black, but that didn't prevent disparate racial demographics in stop-and-frisk incidents. In this way, racism isn't a piece of individual behavior or belief. It's a cultural behavior.

That's why Comey's big proposal falls a little flat:

The truth is that what really needs fixing is something only a few, like President Obama, are willing to speak about, perhaps because it is so daunting a task. Through the 'My Brother’s Keeper' initiative, the President is addressing the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color. For instance, data shows that the percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for blacks as it is for whites. This initiative, and others like it, is about doing the hard work to develop violence-resistant and drug-resistant kids, especially in communities of color, so they never become part of that officer’s life experience.

As my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have noted, black men can do everything right and still end up on the wrong side of an encounter with the police. That's why carefully worded and well-intentioned appeals to respectability politics such as this are unlikely to reduce racial tension in law enforcement. Similarly, Comey said that one of the reasons for his "affection for cops" is that they'll come whenever someone calls 911, no matter the situation. But as long as African Americans are worried that calling the police might result in them getting arrested—or worse, shot—that reliability won't be the same comfort for them that it is for Comey.

Still, Comey's speech is a milestone in the conversation springing out of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland. He called Thursday for improved data collection, noting that when unrest broke out in Ferguson, even he couldn't find out how many African Americans were shot by police every year. He says he wants the FBI to become a leader in gathering and providing better information. Comey has taken the first important step, by recognizing that systemic problems require systemic solutions. The question is whether he will confine his search for such solutions to communities of color, or shift his focus to address the systemic problems with law enforcement itself.