The Comey Speech Misses the Ñ

Director Comey said many important things about life in today's America. But he said not a word about the country's largest racial/ethnic minority.
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Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey broke new ground with an important speech this week about America's race problem in policing. Coming from anyone with authority from the FBI, home of J. Edgar Hoover and, yes, Robert Kennedy excesses, this was an incredible breath of fresh air.

He talked about the white "privilege that comes with being the majority" and the need to check it to break from the inheritance of treating people of color poorly. He acknowledged the phenomenon of implicit bias and quoted Broadway music in proclaiming that everyone is a little bit racist. And he demanded that police officers be seen for the human beings dedicated to public service that they are. All good.

Director Comey said many important things about life in today's America. But he said not a word about the country's largest racial/ethnic minority. He rightfully reminded America about its pernicious treatment of Irish immigrants, the ones Professor Nell Painter documented were rioted against by the Know-Nothings precisely because to be American was to be Saxon, not Celt.

But he did not connect that not uncommon immigrant xenophobic treatment with the largest immigrant group in America today. He cited President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative but stopped short of citing the other group of young men that are targeted for its beneficence.

And more important than any of these examples James Comey dedicated considerable space in his speech to the shortcomings of data collection -- on the use of force, on police shootings of African-Americans, on arrest data -- and decried what that meant for the development of informed discussions, sound policy and discouraging distrust. But he utterly failed in acknowledging the biggest flaw in national data collection as it relates to the other large player in the phrase "people of color."

Sí, you guessed it: Director Comey said nothing about, or to, Latinos in the United States. And in doing so he added to the invisibility of America's largest minority population in the debate over policing and criminal justice reform. This was a lost opportunity that diminished his important teaching moment.

From a Latino perspective the existence of racial profiling and its corruption of police practices is a quotidian experience. The existence of state-sponsored or state-ignored violence against Mexican and Latino communities both historically as in the Texas Rangers and contemporaneously as in the choke-hold death of Anthony Baez in the Bronx, is a very real lived experience. And in New York City the worst aspects of the NYPD's stop and frisk practices were targeted against Latino residents in alarmingly unconstitutional numbers as well.

The touch points for Latinos in Comey's address were all there for the taking. If he wanted a better analogy to the treatment of Irish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century look no further than how Latino immigrants were/are treated in Arizona, Alabama or along New York's border with Canada.

Assuredly, My Brother's Keeper's focus is within the black community -- and rightfully so -- but the same materials that tout its promise document that Latino youth are two and-a-half times more likely than similarly situated white youth to be imprisoned with all the attendant consequences that entails for their potential.

However, it is in the critical area of data collection that Comey, the FBI, state law enforcement and even state corrections officials miss the mark entirely. How many times have we read a post-Ferguson article address racial disparities in arrest rates of X community with either black integration of its respective police force or its city council and wonder what the data say about Latinos?

An excellent USA Today article in November 2014 included an interactive, online map that tracked every police precinct in the country with data on arrests and residential demography. All of it in black and white. The authors conceded that the FBI does not report data on the arrests of Latinos. In a related vein, not all prison data includes a comprehensive snapshot of incarcerated Latinos because a number of corrections departments have no idea how many Latinos they imprison -- only blacks and whites.

In 2015 this is not only unacceptable it is a disservice by public officials intent on finding solutions to today's police and criminal justice problems. The glaring hole that the absence of data on Latino encounters with law enforcement, adjudications and imprisonment equally fails to inform the historic and monumental national debate that is occurring now in policing and criminal justice reform.

FBI Director Comey promised to have his agency lead the reform for better data. I promise to translate that into Spanish for the small numbers of Latinos who have yet to master English -- then Latinos can hold him accountable.

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