To put this belief in a nutshell: America was not ready for a black president.
I will begin with a link to and excerpts from a speech given at Georgetown University by FBI director James B. Comey on February 12. The speech is courageously straightforward, intelligent and nuanced, with only the barest minimum of requisite bureaucratic blather.
With the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, the ongoing protests throughout the country, and the assassinations of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, we are at a crossroads. As a society, we can choose to live our everyday lives, raising our families and going to work, hoping that someone, somewhere, will do something to ease the tension—to smooth over the conflict. We can roll up our car windows, turn up the radio and drive around these problems, 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.
I worry that this incredibly important and incredibly difficult conversation about race and policing has become focused entirely on the nature and character of law enforcement officers, when it should also be about something much harder to discuss.
Comey goes on to discuss four “hard truths.” The first is that law enforcement, from the FBI down, has had a history of racial discrimination. Then, in Comey’s words:
A second hard truth: 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. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us.
I am reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Part of it goes like this:
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 try to sing that.
But 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, it is what we do next that matters most.
Comey’s third “hard truth” is that “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” and therefore “a mental shortcut [based on statistics, on the part of a police officer] becomes almost irresistible and maybe even rational by some lights.”
His fourth “hard truth” is not really a hard truth, but a call for those in law enforcement to “redouble our efforts to resist bias and prejudice.”
It is a great speech, and worth reading from beginning to end, but it is Comey’s second “hard truth” which really earns the designation, “hard truth:” the acknowledgement of a ubiquitous unconscious racial bias.
When the Republicans and the Tea Partiers first began getting nasty about Obama, many supporters of the President immediately ascribed it to racism. I didn’t agree at first. I don’t think I was ready to acknowledge they were right until Obama’s second term began. Now I see racism – conscious or unconscious – as tainting just about all criticism of Obama, from both left and right, as well as just about all the responses to that criticism from his supporters.
For example, the conservative complaint about Obamacare – that by mandating a penalty for those who do not sign up, the federal government has overstepped its executive power – is legitimate, from the point of view of conservative political philosophy. However, I believe that it is a shriller, more frantic complaint than it would be if the president were white because of an unconscious anxiety that this power over white citizens is being wielded by a black man. And the progressive complaint that Obamacare is just a give-away to the insurance industry (which is my own position, by the way) is more bitter and full of outrage than it would be if the president were white, because of an unconscious expectation that a black man, given power, should resist, rather than enable, the oligarchic establishment.
Identifying racism, conscious or unconscious, sometimes is difficult, sometimes not so difficult. Since the method requires the use of the imagination, it hardly is very scientific. For example, take the shooting of Tamir Rice. The black Cleveland 12-year old playing in a park, who had a realistic looking toy gun in his waistband, was shot by a rookie police officer within two seconds of his patrol car arriving at the scene. The only way to determine if racism was involved is to imagine the same incident if a white child had been involved.
Before being hired by the Cleveland Police Department, the shooter, Timothy Loehmann, had been fired from one police department and his employment applications had been rejected by a number of other law enforcement agencies, in at least one instance because he had failed an intelligence test, so one assumes he does not possess a high level of competence or thoughtfulness. Using the method of imagining what would have happened if Loehmann had encountered a white 12-year-old with a realistic gun in his waistband, we can be pretty confident that a combination of less fear and more empathy would have kept him from immediately shooting the white child dead. Racism, surely; was it unconscious or conscious? (Considering the evaluations of Loehmann by other police agencies, one could say that he probably did everything in a sort of semi-conscious, that is, stupid, state.)
Even more racist than shooting Tamir Rice, a spur-of-the-moment act of stupidity and fear, is the behavior of Loehmann and his partner following the shooting. For the ten minutes between the shooting and the arrival of the ambulance, the two cops did not approach Rice, who was still alive, to offer first aid, to staunch his bleeding, or whatever. The only positive steps they took was to arrest his distraught 14 year old sister, who had come running over. Using the method of imagining what they would have done had the child they had just shot, and who was lying wounded on the pavement, had been white, we can be just about 100% confident that the ubiquitous unconscious racism in us all, identified by FBI director Comey, had metastasized into every corner of these cops’ conscious minds and unconscious souls.
To return to the problem of racism and the Obama Presidency, let’s look at the letter that forty-seven senators sent to Iran, undermining Obama’s foreign policy initiative there. It is absolutely outrageous, downright unconstitutional, and insulting for senators to interfere like that in international negotiations. Would that letter have been written and sent if the President were white? My suspicion is that it would not have, but it’s hard to say. After all, the impeachment of Bill Clinton was an even nastier insult.
Let’s look at something else in the news, though.
In chronological order, since Obama became President:
§ The Secret Service inadvertently let uninvited guests crash a White House dinner.
§ Two Secret Service agents were re-assigned from patrolling the White House grounds in order to protect the home of a personal friend of the Agency’s director – twice a day for an undisclosed length of time.
§ A dozen Secret Service agents in Cartagena, Columbia, preparing for a Presidential visit, were caught soliciting prostitutes in their hotel.
§ A Secret Service agent was caught trying to force his way into a woman’s room in a Washington hotel, where he inadvertently had left a bullet (?).
§ The same agent and a supervisor were found to have sent suggestive e-mails to a female colleague. (I’m not sure this doesn’t fall under the heading of comradely raillery.)
§ The Secret Service was duped into allowing a schizophrenic phony sign language interpreter to do his thing three feet away from the President at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
§ Three Secret Service agents were so drunk in a hotel in Amsterdam, preceding a Presidential visit – one of them had passed out on a hallway floor – that the hotel called the Embassy.
§ Two Secret Service counter-snipers were involved in an accident in Florida in which the agent driving had alcohol on his breath.
§ After initially responding to shots fired at the White House – seven in all, one of which sent bits of window frame and concrete falling to the ground – Secret Service agents were told by a supervisor to “stand down” because, he said, what they thought were shots had been the backfiring of a nearby construction vehicle. (The shooter, an Obamaphobe, eventually was identified and arrested.)
§ A crazy guy with a knife (and, it was later discovered, a car trunk full of guns and explosives) made it over the White House fence and into the East Room of the White House before being stopped.
§ Secret Service agents allowed an armed security contractor with an arrest record to ride in an elevator with the President.
§ Two drunken Secret Service agents drove a car through a police crime tape in front of the White House, ran over a package that was being investigated because a caller had described it as a bomb, and crashed the car into a White House gate.
Now I would like you to exercise your imagination. First, take a moment to think of the Secret Service and the standing it has had among law enforcement agencies. Think of the public image of a Secret Service agent, the protector of the President: a guy in a dark suit, wearing an earbud, alert, cool, grim, focused, and ready to stop a bullet for the President. While the image may be a little divorced from reality, it is one that has been earned over the years and one which, without a doubt, many Secret Service agents have tried to live up to, while all of them have tried, at least, to appear to live up to.
Now, imagine a Secret Service that had been protecting a white President for the last seven years – male or female, it doesn’t matter. Imagine Hillary Clinton had been elected in 2008. Imagine, for example, that it was Chelsea Clinton and her daughter who had been in the White House when shots were fired at it, instead of Sasha Obama and the President’s mother-in-law. Imagine it was visits to Cartagena and Amsterdam by Hillary Clinton, instead of Obama, that the Secret Agents had been there preparing the ground for. Imagine that it was the Clintons who occupied the White House, not the Obamas, when the crazy guy jumped over the fence. I, for one, do not think he would have made it to the door.
“Belief” is a pretty wide-ranging concept. I believe that there is not a divinity with a special interest in the human race. I believe it will rain again tomorrow. It would take a miracle, literally, to shake one of those beliefs; just a dry twelve hours would be all it takes to disprove the other. Somewhere in between the confidence I have in those two beliefs is the confidence I have in my belief that the problems with the discipline, the behavior, the esprit de corps, the self-image of the Secret Service are the result of unconscious racism.
Bringing to bear the most superficial amateur psychologizing, I will speculate on the reasons that unconscious racism has disrupted the Secret Service: Its raison d’etre is to protect the American President, a symbol of America just as is the American flag but, unlike the flag, a unique, living and vulnerable person. Ever since 2009, that person has been a black man. Unconscious racism (stressing unconscious) has weakened the Secret Service’s raison d’etre – just as if, to put it primitively, perhaps inexcusably primitively, its agents had been asked to salute an American flag that didn’t really look like other American flags. The lax and irresponsible behavior in the Secret Service under Obama, I think, is the result of a breakdown in the agency’s self-image thanks to an unconscious racism which, while allowing for the worthiness of certain black individuals, cannot accept that a black man is at the top of the heap.
If my analysis of the problems in the Secret Service is correct, then one can extrapolate from there and say that all national politics, anything having to do with the President, is tainted by racism, is skewed by it, is tarnished by it, is dirtied by it – not only in the opposition, but among the Administration’s supporters as well. For along with unconscious racism comes unconscious guilt, unconscious shame, unconscious ambivalence, which call for a reaction (sorry, I am pop-psychologizing again), overcompensation. This overcompensation takes different forms in different political camps, however no matter who is judging President Obama – myself, Marco Rubio, Obama’s friends, Obama’s enemies – at bottom, because he is not simply an American, but a black American, our judgment is tainted and we are not being fair.
We were not ready for a black President.