Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

Professor’s Take: A unique opportunity to discuss race relations

Michael Wenger is an adjunct professor of sociology and a senior fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research institution that concentrates on issues of race.

Last week, FBI Director James Comey delivered a truly remarkable speech at Georgetown University. He told some hard truths about race relations in this country, and particularly focused on those between law enforcement and people of color. Much of what he said has been said before by President Barack Obama and especially by Attorney General Eric Holder.

But Comey is a middle-aged white man who came to the FBI during a Republican administration. So the “hard truths” he courageously told cannot easily be dismissed as someone playing the race card. His speech provides us once again with a unique opportunity to have that often-called-for national conversation about race.

First, the four “hard truths” that Director Comey shared:

  • “…law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty…”
  • “…Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face…”
  • “…something happens to people in law enforcement. Many of us develop different flavors of cynicism… We must resist the lazy shortcuts of cynicism and approach… (a young black man)… with respect and decency…”
  • “…what really needs fixing… (are)… the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color… (who)… grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education and decent employment – they lack… opportunities that most of us take for granted. A tragedy of American life – one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them – is that young people in ‘those neighborhoods’ too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison…”

While praising most law enforcement officials – like his own grandfather – as “people who risk their lives because they want to help other people,” Comey went on to say that “those of us in law enforcement must better understand the people we serve and protect – by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us.”

And in the question-and-answer period, Comey revealed that he was sending a transcript of his speech to all FBI offices to be used to start the needed conversation.

We should follow his lead. The “hard truths” he shared can be the basis for launching “hard truths” conversations between law enforcement officials and not just students of color, but all students – on this campus and on campuses across the country.

Such conversations should be catalysts for broader conversations between law enforcement officials and community members.

Another hard truth is that our continuing racial tensions and disparities result largely from ignorance of our history and how the legacy of that history affects us today. We don’t all have to agree, but we must talk. Talking will lead to better understanding, and in a nation in which most white Americans say they believe in justice and fair play, better understanding can lead to greater racial equity and healing.

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