Barr: ‘I Don’t Think That the Law Enforcement System Is Systemically Racist’

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
June 7, 2020Updated: June 7, 2020

Attorney General William Barr said on Sunday that he does not believe the American law enforcement system is racist, but acknowledged the distrust people in the African-American community have historically had toward law enforcement.

“I think there’s racism in the United States still but I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist. I understand … the distrust, however, of the African-American community given the history in this country,” Barr said during an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation.

He acknowledged that U.S. institutions “for most of our history” had been explicitly racist but had been undergoing a phase of reform since the 1960s to ensure that they were in line with laws.

When asked whether he thinks the reforms were effective, he replied “I think the reform is a difficult task, but I think it is working and progress has been made.”

“I think one of the best examples is the military. The military used to be [an] explicitly racist institution. And now I think it’s in the vanguard of bringing the races together and providing equal opportunity. I think law enforcement has been going through the same process,” he said.

His comments come as tens of thousands of people across the nation have taken to the streets to call for change in policing in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody. Floyd died as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.

The attorney general said he did not think “tweaking of the rules”—such as limiting qualified immunity for police officers in order to make it easier to hold them civilly liable for misconduct during official duty—would be effective, adding that it would “result certainly in police pulling back.”

“It’s, you know, policing is the toughest job in the country. And … I frankly think that we have generally the vast, overwhelming majority of police are good people. They’re civic-minded people who believe in serving the public. They do so bravely. They do so righteously,” Barr said.

He also cautioned against characterizing an organization as “rotten” just because of the actions of an individual.

“All organizations have people who engage in misconduct, and you sometimes have to be careful as for when you ascribe that to the whole organization and when it really is some errant member who isn’t following the rules,” Barr said.

Barr’s remarks echo comments made by other Trump administration officials who deny systemic racism is a problem. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday that while systemic racism was common during a time when he was growing up, he said it’s “very uncommon now.” 

Carson added that now is an opportune time to deal with issues in police departments as people are focused on the matter.

“People are concentrating on this, we can’t let this slip away. We need to deal with some of the issues in the police departments, but this is an easy time to do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf made similar comments during an interview on ABC’s The Week on Sunday, adding that he believes police officers who abuse their jobs should be held accountable.

Barr said that the Justice Department and FBI are currently investigating whether any federal civil rights laws were violated in the Floyd incident and that that probe is “proceeding quickly.”