FBI Director: 'Widespread Existence of Unconscious Bias' a 'Hard Truth'

In a speech at Georgetown University today, FBI Director James Comey asserted that rifts between police and communities can't be overcome until people recognize that they're all biased.

"There is a reason I require all new agents and analysts to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to visit his memorial in Washington as part of their training. And there is a reason I keep on my desk a copy of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval of J. Edgar Hoover’s request to wiretap Dr. King. The entire application is five sentences long, it is without fact or substance, and is predicated on the naked assertion that there is 'communist influence in the racial situation.' The reason I do those things is to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them," Comey said.

"One reason we cannot forget our law enforcement legacy is that the people we serve cannot forget it, either. So we must talk about our history. It is a hard truth that lives on."

The director said "much research" that points to the "widespread existence of unconscious bias" is a "hard truth" that must be faced.

"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. I am reminded of the song 'Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist' from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: '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 sing that," he quipped.

Comey argued that "if we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions, which is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all."

"Although the research may be unsettling, what we do next is what matters most," he added.

But, the FBI chief stressed, "racial bias isn’t epidemic in those who join 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. 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. And they do some of the hardest, most dangerous policing to protect people of color," he said.

Comey said "something happens to people in law enforcement," though, that should be recognized as another "hard truth."

"Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of good will working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel," he said.

"A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights. The two young black men on one side of the street look like so many others the officer has locked up. Two young white men on the other side of the street—even in the same clothes—do not. The officer does not make the same association about the two white guys, whether that officer is white or black. And that drives different behavior. The officer turns toward one side of the street and not the other. We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve."

Comey said what needs to be fixed is "addressing the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color."

"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 director said.