“I’m not racist, but…” Most people of colour have heard this tired-out phrase before. It’s usually followed by words that are meant to comfort but actually reinforce the racism lacing the sentence preceding it. It seems that now, for the more enlightened people wanting to condemn but in the same breath excuse racism, there’s a new catchphrase in town. “Everyone is a little bit racist, but…”.
Although most people know it as a line from the musical Avenue Q, we can thank James Comey, Director of the FBI, for this one.
Last week Comey used this quote to help him along his way when he addressed the topic of race, racism (although he never actually used the word “racism” and only said “racist” three times, twice to defend the police) and policing. At first glance it seems his message is clear: unconscious biases exist and they shape the way the white majority responds to people of colour.
For people of colour – in the US and across the world – this was by no means a new revelation. Yet Comey has been heralded for his candour. And, aside from the usual frustration I’d feel that a fact only becomes true when a white man declares it so, I wouldn’t have too much of a problem with this kind of reaction if this message was the crux of his speech.
But – and there’s always a “but” – Comey jumped from citing what is, quite frankly, the obvious to saying that police aren’t racist. He went through some interesting, nonsensical leaps in logic to claim the police treat white and black people differently as black people are more likely to be criminals because, he said, they are more likely to inherit a legacy of crime.
The issue with Comey’s conclusions is that he places the onus of people of colour; they – not society or the way it’s structured – are the “problem” in his version of reality. In doing so, he gives the police a free pass, separating them from the institutionally racist society he suggests we live in. All the while he holds no one accountable for racism — apart from people of colour, that is.
Comey doesn’t care to explain why people of colour are more likely to be economically and socially disadvantaged nor does he both to comment on why police officers aren’t held accountable when they do murder unarmed black men. These aren’t matters of concern for him.
This isn’t just about Comey, though. It’s not even a moment to point “over there” and make judgements about how messy race relations are across the Atlantic.
Here in the UK, exactly the same problems exist. Racism is endemic. When it comes to the police, attempts to recruit people of colour and action against stop and search are mostly skin deep. And all of this is but a small glimpse into a wider unwillingness to really look at the way racism pervades our society and figure out what we, both as individuals and a collective, can do about it.
So while some commentators might be jumping up and down with glee that a high profile figure like Comey has made such “bold” statements on race, it really signals yet another half measure. It’s no good to end these big, important thoughts with “buts”. If you’re going to declare everyone is a “little bit” racist, your next breath should be used to ask: what are we going to do about it?
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow.