Attorney General Eric Holder is on his way out, but FBI Director James Comey might be ready to take his place as Teller of Hard Truths on race. At a speech Thursday at Georgetown University, Comey said the nation is at a "crossroads," in the wake of high-profile killings of unarmed black men at the hands of the police and the murders of two New York police officers that followed.
"As a society, we can choose to live our everyday lives, raising our families and going to work, hoping someone, somewhere, will do something to ease the tension — to smooth over the conflict. We can turn up the music on the car radio and drive around these problems," he said. "Or we can choose to have an open and honest discussion about what our relationship is today — what it should be, what it could be, and what it needs to be — if we took more time to better understand one another."
Comey laid out a number of hard truths on race -- a rare move for such a high-profile white law enforcement official, or even a law-enforcement official, period:
- "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."
- "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. We all — white and black — carry various biases around with us."
- "So many young men of color become part of that officer’s experience because so many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment. They lack all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted."
The speech recalled Holder's a "nation of cowards" speech in February of 2009:
Comey also praised officers, saying that bias was hardly more of an epidemic among cops, but that cops often sometimes took "lazy mental shortcuts" fueled by bias. On the whole, it's a speech that might not go over well among officers and their biggest defenders, who have criticized the Obama administration for being too hard on cops.
So why now? And what's next?
Well, it's Black History Month, and it's likely that a number of speeches and meetings will happen around issues important to African Americans this month. Obama, for instance, met with the Congressional Black Caucus this week. As for what's next: Much of the protest around Ferguson has receded, taking the heat off of elected officials. But there are a few things to look for. There could be some news on My Brother's Keeper, Obama's signature race initiative, which Comey praised. And legislatures in at least 13 states have filed police accountability bills, addressing body cameras for police, how officer involved shootings are investigated and racial profiling. Also, on March 2, Obama's policing task force is set to present a draft of its findings.
In other words, while the protests have died down, the issue is still one that demands tending to. And it's one that, unfortunately, has the potential to crop up at any time.
Comey said that police have inherited a past of "treating a whole lot of people of color poorly."
"That’s our inheritance as law enforcement, and it is not all in the distant past. We must account for that inheritance. And we — especially those of us who enjoy the privilege that comes with being the majority — must confront the biases that are inescapable parts of the human condition," he said. "We must speak the truth about our shortcomings as law enforcement and fight to be better."
A speech -- even one as blunt and rare as Comey's -- is the easy part. Finding consensus on a way forward is another matter altogether.