The FBI Is Still So White: raceAhead

July 24, 2019, 8:30 PM UTC

I’m going to sidestep the hot takes, explainers, and partisan talking points that are filling the airwaves after Robert Mueller’s testimony today, and return to a tried and true raceAhead reframe: The FBI is so, so white.

I first raised this issue after President Trump abruptly fired then FBI director James Comey in 2017. He learned of his dismissal while visiting with FBI agents in Los Angeles, in part to prepare for a diversity recruiting event he was scheduled to attend later that evening.

Here’s what I said then:

While this may be the least interesting element of yesterday’s news, the FBI’s stunning lack of diversity remains one of the more serious issues facing the agency—and the country it serves—in the long term. According to the FBI’s own statistics, 83% of special agents, 78% of intelligence analysts, and 69% of professional staff are white. Comey, as it turned out, was on the case.

[In July 2016], the former director gave a speech to a group of security officials for HBCUs at the invitation of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. “We have a crisis in the FBI and it is this: Slowly but steadily over the last decade or more, the percentage of special agents in the FBI who are white has been growing.’’ It was a time when many leaders were struggling to articulate a message on race and police violence, and Comey did not disappoint. He told the group that it was his job to reverse the trend at the FBI. “That is a path to a fall down a flight of stairs… 83% will become 100%, and we will be less effective for the American people,” he said. “I will have failed if I don’t change this.”

So, he failed. 

Worse, so did the Senate, who failed to raise the issue during current director Christopher Wray’s lengthy confirmation hearing. (And despite my persistent Twitter campaign asking Judiciary Committee members to ask Wray about his plans to make the FBI more inclusive. So, I failed too.)

But as important as today’s hearing may have been, a Congressional inquiry into the lack of diversity in federal law enforcement is long overdue.

Comey made an earlier appeal for federal law enforcement reform during a candid speech at Georgetown in February 2015. He talked about the “complicated” relationship between law enforcement and their communities, he spoke about Michael Brown and Eric Garner, unconscious bias, and affirmed the anger many feel toward law enforcement. “All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty.” 

His solution: Law enforcement agencies, biased and burdened by an unpretty history, have to do the hard work “to design systems and processes to overcome that very human part of us all.”

While we wait, the FBI’s diversity numbers haven’t changed. And if my razor-sharp instincts are correct, they’re not going to any time soon. So, will we ever hear a new rallying cry from the FBI—Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity… Diversity? 

On Point

Black voters will remember Trump’s tweets The “go back to where they came from” tweets are continuing to stir alarm among voters of color, according to this reporting from Errin Haines Whack and Scott Bauer. And it appears to be translating into welcome political engagement from black voters. Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is black and from Milwaukee, says that the tweets are resonating “in a more real way” with voters. “I see more people engaged and responding to the comments, people who aren’t political,” she said. Woke Vote founder DeJuana Thompson says that it’s essential all candidates address racism directly. “The standard is justice. The standard is equity. And if you’re not saying those things, it is landing—particularly on people of color’s ears—very differently than it ever has before." AP News

Who is Boston’s Seaport district for? The city’s newest residential area is described as a “posh playground” in this Boston Globe story. But it seems to have become a whitopia, unwelcoming to people of color as if by subtle design. “By any measure, diversity has been a foreign concept there,” reports Adrian Walker. “Only a handful of the mortgages in the Seaport have gone to people of color. Few of the employees of either its old-school law firms or the new biotech firms are black.” The district is the product of a multi-billion taxpayer funded clean-up of Boston Harbor. The same group that sued to force the Harbor project, just surveyed residents on their attitude toward the Seaport and found that black Bostonians don’t feel welcome. “Given that every resident contributed to the billions of dollars it took to clean up the harbor, we think it’s important that everyone have access to the use of and enjoyment of it,” says the president of the Conservation Law Foundation. Boston Globe

What happened to Mic matters to us all While it’s only obliquely about diversity, this deep dive into the downfall of Mic, the millennial-focused digital news site, is instructive. It began with a bold vision for resetting the discourse while building a billion media empire, paired with a knack for finding underrepresented journalistic voices. They began covering news subjects of interest to the 18 to 34-year-old crowd, including topics that intersected with race, gender, class, and sexuality. But with an unwieldy valuation and the pressure of producing venture-sized returns, they fell victim to mercurial Facebook strategies, video pivots, and “shareability” metrics. Then came the burnout. The shoddy work. The plagiarism. The revolt of the underpaid. Read the whole thing; all of it is worth remembering the next time you want to talk to the media’s manager. Huffington Post


On Background

What’s an emotional tax? Women of color pay an additional price at work, explains Catalyst, a nonprofit that advances progress for women in the workplace. Black, Latinx, and Asian women are often on guard against bias, a form of “emotional tax” that can impact their health and productivity. RaceAhead has covered the research behind this phenomenon in depth, but this helpful short video can nudge anyone who may need a little inclusive leadership coaching. Please watch and share. Catalyst

Remembering the Red Summer Hundreds of black children, women, and men were murdered during the long, hot summer of 1919, set upon by white mobs in small towns and large cities, lynched, shot, burned alive, hanged, beaten. Homes and businesses were razed or seized. And yet, history barely remembers the event. “The people who were the icons of the civil rights movement were raised by the people who survived Red Summer,” said history professor Saje Mathieu. Experts say that social forces—like the Great Migration and returning World War I veterans in search of equal rights—spurred the violence. “Ethnic cleansing was the goal of the white rioters,” said William Tuttle, an author and retired professor. "They wanted to kill as many black people as possible and to terrorize the rest until they were willing to leave and live someplace else." AP News

The Harlem Renaissance in photos Starting in the 1930s, Harlem became the epicenter of a cultural revolution, as artists, writers, poets, and musicians flocked to the NYC neighborhood in search of opportunity. The Addison Gallery of American Art has staged an exhibit celebrating the phenomenon, beautifully chronicled in this short video from PBS. Stephanie Sparling Williams, the exhibit’s curator, is also featured. “The art was important then in creating a new visual lexicon for African Americans against histories of dehumanizing and degrading stereotypes and imagery in the American popular imagination,” she says. The photos are inherently inspiring, she suggests. “I see vibrance. I see a people who have been through so much and were given so little and have made this out of it, this miraculous—this place.” PBS

Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead.


“The civil rights we enjoy today are in spite of J. Edgar Hoover, not because of him. Yet, his name adorns one of the most prominent buildings in our nation’s capital and one that houses one of the agencies of government responsible for justice. Given his well-documented abuses and prejudices towards African Americans, gays, and lesbians, I believe it is past time to remove his name from this place of honor.”

Congressman Steve Cohen on his proposed legislation to remove former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI building in Washington, D.C.

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