Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Selective Hard Truths

If this were Jeopardy, E.J. Dionne would be king.  He asks the right question... then gives the wrong answer He is not, however, alone in saluting  FBI Director James B. Comey (photo by Cliff Owens/AP) for his recent speech at Georgetown University about race and the police.  Dionne, as well as this analyst in The New York Times board, this Daily Kos contributor, and others on the left, were quite impressed. The syndicated columnist, who actually struck a better balance than most other people, concluded by writing

It’s worth remembering that liberals were once attacked for being “root causers” trying to downplay the problem of criminality itself. But maybe it takes a cop’s grandson to prod us to act on both the problem of racism and the economic, social and familial challenges faced by young African-American men.

In this sense, Comey really is a subversive. He’s trying to subvert and thus transform a debate that leads us into ideological cul-de-sacs. He must stay at it.

Comey made several points in an apparent effort to evaluate and help close the divide between law enforcement and "young men of colored." (Fascinating how "colored people" once was properly viewed as a slur. Now progressives and poseurs say "people of color.") He noted

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. It was unfair to the Healy siblings and to countless others like them. It was unfair to too many people...

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. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us.

Progressive stuff that, public discussion of race by law enforcement is virtually always a positive, and one hopes he does stay at it.  Nearly orgasmic, the NYT editorial board contended the "remarks also went beyond what President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. have said since an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August." More circumspect, Dionne noted

Let’s face it: If Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder had given the same speech (and they’ve said many of these things), the response would have been political and in some cases nasty. This only underscores why it was essential for the words to come from a white director of the FBI.

Dionne then asked the $69,000 question: "Was Comey trying to shift some of the heat away from police and toward society as a whole?"  Unfortunately, he answered "No, because he was clear on law enforcement’s need to examine and reform itself. But yes, he was trying to concentrate our energies on the root causes of crime, and good for him."

Comey did not completely ignore the root causes of crime. But as a law enforcement officer, his effort to shift some of the heat from police toward society, unnoticed by practically everyone including Dionne, is concerning.  Comey argued

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. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us. I am reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Part of it goes like this:

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.

You should be grateful I did not try to sing that....

But racial bias isn’t epidemic in law enforcement any more than it is epidemic in academia or the arts. In fact, I believe law enforcement overwhelmingly attracts people who want to do good for a living—people who risk their lives because they want to help other people. They don’t sign up to be cops in New York or Chicago or L.A. to help white people or black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They sign up because they want to help all people. And they do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color.

Surely, Comey is directing heat from police toward society as he  argues that officers aren't racist and if they are, so are all of us, It may be true, as the FBI director maintains, that racial bias is no more common in law enforcement than in academia or the arts, though if he has the statistics, he ought to ante up. But signing up because they want to help all people (as is the motivation for many, but not all, men and women who apply to be police officers) is no guarantee of an absence of racial bias. And by the way: teachers, firefighters, members of the clergy, nurses, probation and parole officers, and members of a few other professions signed on in order to help people of all ethnic groups. It is no guarantee that none in their ranks harbors racial bias.

Most police officers aren't racist. Nonetheless, as The Atlantic's David A. Graham points out

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.

Give Comey points for not retreating to the "if we only hired more blacks" dodge, similar to the "if we only elected more women" dodge.  (At one time, we heard "if only there were more women in office, there would be fewer young men dying in wars." That may be another stereotype Hillary Clinton breaks.)  He points out that people in disadvantaged minority communities "too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer—whether white or black—sees the world."   But take points away because he does not recommend the legalization of marijuana or termination of "broken windows" policing.

It's not surprising, though, that the FBI director would not criticize the broken windows concept, one which might be rational if there were enough police in urban areas to address relatively inconsequential infractions. Comey actually said this, and I'm not kidding:  "Let me be transparent about my affection for cops. When you dial 911, whether you are white or black, the cops come, and they come quickly, and they come quickly whether they are white or black. That’s what cops do, in addition to..."

Welcome to Planet Comey, in which a fabulously successful attorney is unable to grasp a basic reality for most people in communities across the U.S.A. that are not affluent.  In arguably most towns, response time of police far exceeds what the FBI director imagines. Rapid response often is beyond the control of individual police officers (let me, too, "be transparent about my affection for cops") due to circumstances such as work responsibilities or road/traffic conditions. Underprivileged communities typically are understaffed, a reality Comey seems blissfully unaware of.

Comey's major contribution might be a more practical one than joining the conversation on race and law enforcement.  He lamented incomplete reporting of  "demographic data regarding officer-involved shootings" and insufficient data about individuals who are arrested, obstacles to crime prevention given insufficient attention.  Nonetheless, he emphasized American society's legacy of racial discrimination and the impact that has had on relations between police and people "of color." His is an important contribution- but not a wholly positive one.

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