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."