Politics

Attorney General Bill Barr Doesn’t Think Systemic Racism Exists Among U.S. Police

“I don’t agree that there’s systemic racism in police departments,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said when questioned by members of Congress.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his first-ever appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Bill Barr defended federal agents’ aggressive tactics against Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland and said he doesn’t believe systemic racism is a problem among American police.

Until Tuesday, Barr had declined repeated requests from members of Congress to appear for committee questioning during his tenure as attorney general. During the hearing, House Judiciary Democrats took advantage of the rare opportunity to directly question the nation’s top law enforcement official on many controversial Trump administration policies.

In his opening statement, the attorney general claimed “although the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police was a shocking event, the fact is that these events are fortunately quite rare.”
 
“According to statistics compiled by the Washington Post, the number of unarmed black men killed by police so far this year is eight. The number of unarmed white men killed by police over the same period of time is 11,” Barr said, referring to a Post database of police shootings.

The Post has found that police in the U.S. killed more white people than Black people between 2015 and 2020, though Black Americans are killed by police at more than two times the rate that white Americans are. Numerous studies cited by CBS have also found that Black Americans are significantly more likely to be killed by police, especially when factoring in the size of each racial group in the U.S.

Barr said on Tuesday, “I think these events strike a deep chord in the Black community because they are perceived as manifestations of a deeper, lingering concern that in encounters with police, blacks will not be treated evenhandedly. … At the same time, I think it would be an oversimplification to treat the problem as rooted in some deep-seated racism generally infecting our police departments.”
 
“It seems far more likely that the problem stems from a complex mix of factors, which can be addressed with focused attention over time,” he continued in his opening statement. Later, in response to a line of questioning, he said, “I don’t agree that there’s systemic racism in police departments.”

The AG told Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) he was not familiar with the case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in 2019 after he was forcibly detained and tackled by police while walking down the street in the city of Aurora, Colorado. McClain’s case has gained renewed national attention as protests against police brutality swept the nation in recent months, prompting new investigations into his death.

The attorney general also said he did not know how often law enforcement uses ketamine or directs EMTs to use the medication to subdue civilians, as occurred in McClain’s case. He struck a similar tone in response to questioning by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), telling her he did not know armed protesters called for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to be “lynched or beheaded.”

Rep. Jayapal also pointed out that Barr and the Department of Justice treat Black and white protesters very differently. 

“There is a real discrepancy in how you react, as the attorney general—the top cop in this country—when white men with swastikas storm a government building with guns, there’s no need for the president to ‘activate’ you, because they’re getting the president’s personal agenda done,” Jayapal said. “But when Black people, and people of color, protest police brutality, systemic racism, and the president’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers, pepper bombs, because they are considered ‘terrorists’ by the president.”

She added: “You take an aggressive approach to Black Lives Matter protests, but not to right-wing extremists threatening to ‘lynch’ a governor, if it’s for the president’s benefit.”

Barr’s testimony came the day after community activist groups Don’t Shoot Portland and the “Wall of Moms” filed suit against the federal government, including the DOJ, alleging unlawful use of force by federal agents, the suppression of free speech, and violation of constitutional rights. 

In the lawsuit, in which Barr is one of the named defendants, the plaintiffs allege that they “have been tear-gassed night after night, left vomiting and unable to eat or sleep because of the toxic poison blasted at them.”
 
“They have been shot at over and over — with rubber bullets, bean bags, pepper spray, and a range of other projectiles fired at close range and with brutal effect,” the complaint reads. “They have had flash-bang explosive devices detonated right in front of them. They have been forced to speak and assemble in fear of not just bodily harm, but the possibility of sudden arrest without probable cause.”

Tuesday's hearing also took place after a ceremony was held in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights leader and icon who died of pancreatic cancer on July 17. Lewis was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda. In his opening remarks, Barr paid his respects to Congressman Lewis and called him "an indomitable champion of civil rights and the rule of law," prompting voting rights expert and author Ari Berman to tweet, "Lewis was arrested more than 40 times for protesting unjust laws."

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) later pointed out that Barr hadn't brought any Black staff with him to the congressional hearing.