James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Diversity Agent Recruitment Program, Ronald Reagan International Trade Center
Washington, D.C.
August 17, 2016

Strength Through Diversity: Building a Better FBI

Good afternoon, everybody. It’s great to be with you.

I will be completely honest about why I’m here. I’m trying to recruit you because we have a problem in the FBI. In fact, I describe it as a crisis in the FBI and I discovered it, to my surprise, when I became director three years ago. You may not know this—the Director of the FBI gets a 10-year term. That 10-year term is designed to ensure the independence of the organization and to balance two competing values. I think I’m the seventh director of the FBI. The first served for 48 years—just a touch too long as Director. J. Edgar Hoover was in office for 48 years, and so Congress’ idea in passing a statute that gave the FBI Director a 10-year term was to fix it so that no one person becomes too powerful, but make it longer than any national-level elected official’s term to ensure a measure of independence.

I began three years ago a 10-year term, and I came in to take stock of this amazing organization that I’ve known my entire adult life, but knew that I didn’t know it well enough. As I dug into it and got to know the organization better, I noticed a number that shocked me. Eighty-three percent of the FBI’s special agents, I discovered, are white. Eighty-three percent. That number, that percentage, has been growing slowly but steadily for about 10 to 12 years.

I stared at that and said, “That is a huge problem.” I’ve explained this to my workforce. It’s a huge problem not because I have a problem with white people. I’m quite fond of tall, awkward, male white people from the New York area who can’t jump. It’s because I worry about the effectiveness of the FBI. The FBI’s special agent workforce, which is about a third of our total workforce, is the FBI to so much of America. The FBI’s operating in a country that is becoming more and more diverse, more complicated, and—in my view—more wonderful, while the FBI is becoming more white.

I’ve asked this question of the workforce. We’re now 83 percent white. If we become 100 percent white, are we more effective or less effective? I say, “Please don’t raise your hands.” It’s obvious we’re less effective in a couple of different ways. We’re obviously less effective because we have to operate in communities that are increasingly diverse and interesting and wonderful. That’s the first and most obvious reason. The second reason is this: We have extraordinary power in the FBI. Extraordinary power to do good, but like all power, if misused it can do bad.

Key to the responsible exercise of power is judgment. Judgment is different from intelligence. Intelligence—IQ—is actually fairly common. Judgment is much more unusual. Judgment is the ability to orbit a situation. Intelligence is the ability to solve a riddle, solve an equation, master a set of facts. But judgment is the ability to orbit that answer and see it through the eyes of others to see how others might react to it, how it might be seen in a different place and time. How would this decision we’re about to make in the FBI be viewed in Congress or in a courtroom or in an editorial room of a newspaper by people of this walk of life, that walk of life. How will folks think about this decision? That’s what judgment is.

I hope it’s obvious to you that the responsible exercise of power which requires judgment is impaired if everybody has my life experience. I already know what the world looks like trapped in me, trapped in my background, with my upbringing, with my way of experiencing the world. If all I have around me is me, my ability to orbit a situation, to see it in different ways, and to exercise judgment is impaired, so at its root, the responsible exercise of power is at risk as we become more and more white. I’ve said this to the workforce as well.

The danger in it is that at some point 83 percent becomes a fall down a flight of stairs. Because at some point people are going to look at the special agent workforce, the FBI, and say, “That’s where white people work.” Then we’re going to become 100 percent white overnight, and this country will be at risk because of that.

That’s why I described it as a crisis. That’s why it is one of my personal priorities. That’s why I talk about it all over the country when I visit the FBI.

Here’s what I’ve explained is the answer—it’s not rocket science. I have five kids. One of my daughters—all of my kids are much cooler than I am—but one of my daughters who is particularly cool said, “Dad, the problem is you’re the man.” I thought she meant that as a compliment so I said, “Thank you.” She said, “No, dad, I don’t mean that in a good way. The problem is you’re the man. Who would want to work for the man?”

I said, “You know what? First of all, you’re right. Second, if people could really see what the man and the woman of the FBI are like and what they get to do and who they protect and serve and what their values are like and what they’re like as a family, everybody should want to work for us.”

We have extraordinarily high standards. The problem we face today is a whole lot of people of talent who are good enough to be in the FBI are not considering it cause they don’t know what it’s like. Most organizations have two problems when it comes to diversity. Most organizations struggle to attract people from various backgrounds—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, men, women, you name it. They have trouble attracting people across a broad spectrum. That’s the first problem.

Most also have the second problem, which is they have trouble making their environment welcoming for those folks so they feel comfortable and loved in that community. They have trouble retaining that kind of talent. The great news is, and I’ve said this to our workforce, we don’t have that second problem. We are a family of tens of thousands, so in any family that big you’re going to have your weird aunts and uncles and cousins and stuff, but in the overwhelming main we are a welcoming family no matter what you look like, no matter what background you come from.

I’ll prove it to you. Our turnover among special agents, whether they’re male or female, black or white or Latino or Asian or Native America—doesn’t matter—it’s all right about the same, 0.5 percent. Almost no one who becomes a special agent of the FBI leaves. I joke that it’s the world’s nicest roach motel. You come in, you never get out. The reason you never get out is you never want to get out. The mission of the FBI, which we recently rewrote, is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States. Once you figure out what it means and feels like to do that for a living, it’s addictive.

My worry about our workforce is they work too hard. They don’t often enough say, “I’ll step away from this mission and go do something fun.” We force them to, because we need that balance in their lives. Once people taste what it feels like to do work with moral content, to do good for a living—which, as corny as it sounds, is really what we do—they do not leave.

So I’ve challenged our workforce. We don’t have that second problem, but we’ve got to get out there and make sure more people from all different walks of life see what this is like and try to get in here. Once they get in here they’re never going to want to leave. I’ve said, “The way we’re going to do this is by realizing that recruiting is not somebody else’s job. It’s not the job of the recruiting coordinator or the applicant coordinator, it’s my job and it’s your job.” I’ve said to people, “If you are in line at a Denny’s and you’re talking to somebody and they strike you as someone who has the values and the abilities and the skills we want, you ought to be recruiting them. If you’re at a ball game sitting next to someone between innings you start talking to them—at halftime you start talking to them—you ought to be recruiting to make sure people understand what this place is like.”

What am I doing here tonight? I’m putting my money where my mouth is. You’re not paying me anything, so it’s free. I’m here because recruiting is my job to make sure that people understand what kind of place this is.

I worry sometimes, especially when it comes to African-American applicants, that the Bureau has a hangover in the United States. The Bureau—I hope you know the history. I know it very well. The history of the Bureau’s interaction during the 1950s and 60s, especially with black Americans, is decidedly mixed. We finally got off the bench and got into the game. We destroyed the Ku Klux Klan. We were slow getting off the bench to get in the game to destroy the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1960s, we tried intentionally to destroy Martin Luther King. That’s our history. I can’t go back and change history. What I’m insisting is that the entire FBI stare at that history.

If you decide to become a special agent of the FBI and you are accepted into the Academy at Quantico, you will be required to take a course. I don’t care whether you know the history well enough or not, everybody’s required to take the course to study the FBI’s interaction with Dr. King—to study it, to understand it, to look at the documents, to see what that abuse of power looks like, and then to come to Washington. We have long had our people visit the Holocaust museum because we want them to see what the abuse of power looks like on a global scale, but my worry is people see that as too far away and yesterday. I want them to stare at a piece of our own history. They will then, having studied the history of our interaction with Dr. King, come over to the King Memorial, walk among the stones, stare at it, pick a quotation from that wall, and then write an essay about it and talk to the class about it.

Our design there is to make people think deeply, to understand how the values that we aspire to hold were implicated in the way we acted with respect to Dr. King. I can’t change history, but I can change the way people think about our values and embrace our values. I hope if you feel a hangover—which is understandable, without knowing what we’re like—that you’ll take the time to stare at us and demand answers for what we’re really like and what it feels like to do this for a living.

When I talk to young audiences today, I especially worry that with all the challenges we face in this country in law enforcement—and especially in the divide between law enforcement and communities of color—and I actually think that by stating it that way we risk failing to focus in particular on the challenge. I think the challenge is in law enforcement and communities of color, especially African-American communities. As we stare at those problems and struggle—I struggle, I’m sure like a lot of you—about how we can bridge that divide. I worry that great young men and women will decide that a law enforcement career is too controversial. I worry very much.

When I talk to young audiences, when I talk to audiences of people who are thinking about doing what we do for a living, I talk to them this way. I’ll see if this makes sense to you. Here’s the problem with life: All of us—and if you’re in this room, you’re a talented person—all of us here of talent are always striving. We’re striving for good grades. We’re striving to get into a good college. We’re striving to get good grades there. We’re striving to get recognized, to get in an honor society, and then to get a good job, and then to get a nicer car, and then to get an extra bedroom, and then to save money for the kids, and then to get recognized and honored and all those important things. I’ve done all of that and that’s the way to live.

If that’s the only way you live, you can miss something that’s really, really important. In that conversation about money and honor and things is often smoke that obscures what matters in life. When I speak especially to younger audiences, younger than this, I say, “Occasionally you’ve got to do something weird. Given the nature of life and how the smoke can get into your eyes, occasionally you’ve got to close your eyes and imagine yourself old and gray and about to die.”

See how I am an awful speaker to young people?

I say, “Look, I know this sounds weird, but sometimes you’ve got to sit there and close your eyes. I hope you’re 90, 100 years old, and I hope you’ve lived a wonderful life, but sit there at the end of your life and look back on your life and ask this question: Who do I want to have been? Who do I want to have been?”

I’m honest with them. I say, “The reason I ask you to think about it that way is that from that perspective the smoke is blown away. Houses, cars, honor societies, plaques on the wall, who cares? Your life is about to end. Who do you want to have been?”

I hope in those audiences I speak to are some people who want to have been what the people of the FBI will have been. People who with whatever God-given ability they had did something for people who needed them—protected the weak, fought predators, protected civil rights, stopped terrorism, made the weak safe from the evil and strong. I hope that young people, when they think about it that way, will decide, “That’s who I want to have been.” I tell the whole FBI, “Look, we work like maniacs. We do not get paid a lot of dough.” Please don’t come to the FBI if you think you’re going to get rich. Don’t let someone lie to you about that. That would be a lie. I hope our people realize that they will be glad that this is who they decided to have been. I am extraordinarily glad. I will get kicked out in seven years and I will grieve for it because I will have lost work with extraordinary moral content.

I hope as you sit there you’re going to learn about how we do things. You’re going to hear from one of the legends of the FBI, Mike Mason, who is, I’m sure, able to offer you the perspective of what it feels like to leave this work. I hope, as you think about this, some of you decide this is who you will want to have been. By doing that you obviously make the FBI better—you will make this country safer and better—because you’ll have made the FBI more effective and a better exerciser of power. I thank you for listening to me. I hope you’ll give this a shot. You will not regret it. Thank you so much.