Attorney General William Barr stunned viewers Wednesday when he said that it’s not necessarily racism when police repeatedly treat Black people differently than white people.
Barr made the remarks in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who pressed him to back up his stated belief that Black people aren’t disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.
“I think there are some situations where statistics would suggest that they are treated differently, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily racism,” Barr said.
The attorney general also disputed the idea that the criminal justice system treats Black people more harshly, as research broadly shows it does.
“No, I don’t think there are two justice systems,” he said. “I think the narrative that the police are on some epidemic of shooting unarmed Black men is simply a false narrative, and also the narrative that that’s based on race.”
Wolf confronted Barr with a remark he’d made to ABC in July, quoting him as saying, “I do think it is a widespread phenomenon that African American males, in particular, are treated with extra suspicion and maybe not given the benefit of the doubt.”
“That’s what I just said,” Barr responded. Perplexed, Wolf asked, “But doesn’t that sound like systemic racism?” Barr began nitpicking the language: “No. To me, the word systemic means that it’s built into the institution.”
What the attorney general acknowledged to be true is, in fact, systemic racism. Racism against Black people has been built into the American system since white settlers colonized the land and then spent centuries enslaving Black people and legalizing discrimination against them. The lingering effects of those practices are what fuel the racism Black Americans face today, sometimes directly costing them their lives.
President Donald Trump, too, said this week that police violence against Black people isn’t a systemic issue. “I don’t believe that,” he said. “I think the police do an incredible job, and I think you do have some bad apples.”
Trump was speaking at a roundtable event in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where police recently shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back seven times, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Barr claimed during his CNN interview that Blake was “in the midst of committing a felony and he was armed.” Wolf corrected him, noting that Blake’s family and lawyers say that a knife might have been nearby but that Blake wasn’t armed with it. Barr stood by his claim about the case, which remains under investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the FBI.