On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wrote a blog post in which I referred to a New York Times OP-ED by Nicholas Kristof last August 27th in which he posed the portentous question: Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? And in my subsequent discussion, I confessed that after honest examination I had to admit that I fit within the class of individuals revealed by recent research “who intellectually believe in equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who also harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior,” and suggested that if most of my fellow Americans were scrupulously honest with themselves, they would come to the same unhappy conclusion.
On February 12th, James Comey, the Director of the FBI, delivered an unusually candid speech at Georgetown University about the difficult relationship between the police and African-Americans in which he confirmed this unhappy conclusion. As reported by The New York Times, “He started by acknowledging that law enforcement had a troubled legacy when it came to race. ‘All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,’ he said. ‘At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups,’” a sad situation graphically depicted in my novel, Gideon’s Children, set in the tumultuous and transformative 1960s, and scheduled for release on March 3rd.
Further, Mr. Comey stated that “there was significant research showing that all people have unconscious racial biases. Most cannot help their instinctive reactions,” he said, but law enforcement officers need “to design systems to overcome that very human part of us all.” (italics added) The Times article then articulated how Comey proceeded to “lay out several measures that he said could ease the tension, including more interaction between the police and those they are charged to protect. ‘It’s hard to hate up close,’ he said. He then concluded by quoting Dr. King, who said, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.’ And Comey concluded his remarks with: ‘We all have work to do—hard word to do, challenging work—and it will take time. We all need to listen, not just about easy things, but about hard things, too. Relationships are hard. Relationships require work. So let’s begin. It is time to start seeing one another for who and what we really are.’”
Unlike Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and Attorney General Holder, who were roundly faulted by police groups for their critical remarks about law enforcement, I am highly pleased to report that Mr. Comey’s thoughtful and nuanced remarks were praised by a number of high-ranking officials from various police organizations.
I, too, want to commend Mr. Comey for his honesty and courage in urging all of us, police and citizenry, to face the human part of ourselves and work to overcome our biases so that we can learn to live as brothers.