My illuminating glimpse of ‘driving while black’

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Hands on a steering wheel.

Hands on a steering wheel.

Last week I became an inadvertent witness to the experience of “driving while black.” As a passenger I witnessed first hand a very tense encounter between a black male driver and a black male police officer here in Atlanta. I want to describe what happened as accurately as I can, and invite your analysis along with mine.

My friend (let’s call him Sam) graduated from Mercer University’s seminary program and is a long-time Baptist pastor. I was his teacher, and we have been good friends for years. Sam is in his upper-40s, powerfully built, medium height. He hails from a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn.

On this cold day in Atlanta Sam was wearing a ski cap, scarf, and warm coat over dress pants and shirt. He had picked me up to go out to lunch. I was wearing blue jeans and a sweater. Sam was driving a nondescript white sedan.

Sam was running a bit late and was anxious to make our lunch reservation in north Atlanta. We were on one of Atlanta’s many access roads that run parallel to the interstate. There was no traffic. There was also no visible speed limit sign. Sam was driving too fast, as we discovered when we were pulled over. The officer told Sam that he had him going 64 mph in a 45 zone.

Every traffic stop is a kind of negotiation because of the troubling discretion that police officers enjoy. One day you might get a warning. The next day you might get no mercy at all. Sam hoped that this negotiation might go well and the officer might let him off or at least charge him with a lower speed.

The officer came to the car. Sam sought to be friendly and to establish some rapport. He told the officer that his professor was with him in the car (respectability points!) and that we were late for a lunch appointment. He gently wondered at the speed he was being charged with but did not push it very hard. The officer seemed to be sizing up the situation. Then he asked rather briskly for driver’s license and registration.

While the officer went back to his car, Sam told me that he had just been involved in a program at his church teaching young black males how to relate to the police when stopped. He expressed anger that such classes should be necessary. He talked about how as a black male you have to manage your voice just right. You have to be sure your hands are up and visible on the steering wheel. You need to be sure your body language does not offend. You can’t look or sound angry. And if you do all of those things maybe it will turn out all right. He also alluded to a terrifying incident when he was 18 when a New York police officer threatened to crack Sam’s skull. (A reminder that the concerns being raised by the #BlackLivesMatter movement are old, not new.) All of this reminiscing was possible because, as Sam noted, the officer seemed to be taking an extraordinarily long time. That can’t be good, Sam said.

When the officer finally came back to the car, it did not go well. He told Sam that he was indeed being charged with going 64 in a 45 zone. I saw Sam very subtly shrug his shoulders, bow his head, sigh, and kind of shift his weight to the right. I would interpret this body language as, at most, slight frustration at the bad outcome and the huge fine that was coming. But the officer bristled. He said: “You got a problem?” Sam said: “No sir.” He said: “Because I could walk around your car right now and find other violations.” Sam said: “I’m not sure what I did that offended you.” The officer said: “I’m not offended. But it’s your body language. Body language means everything to me.” Sam said: “I apologize for whatever that was.” The officer said: “I wanted to be sure you were paying attention.” Then he recited the charges and presented the ticket while Sam sat as meekly as possible.

I was briefly afraid things were going to escalate further. I felt fear for Sam. I wondered whether my presence might be keeping the situation from getting worse. This made me feel protective, privileged, and awful.

Some questions: If we were wearing suits, would it have turned out differently? Sam thinks so. What if the car had been more upscale? What if Sam hadn’t shrugged his shoulders and bowed his head just that way, as if that should matter? What if I were driving, instead of Sam? What’s the best interpretation of this situation, one that takes race seriously or one that does not?

Personally, I think race was all over it, even though both major participants were African Americans. (I have often seen black authority figures, including police officers, speak quite harshly to black people in Atlanta. Sam tells me it is routine, is about expressing control, and for black police officers, is about demonstrating loyalty to badge over race.) I think the officer talked disrespectfully to Sam and probably wouldn’t have done so to me. I think his threat of manufacturing other charges against Sam was wrong and an abuse of power.

This was a minor incident. No blood was shed.

But it is sadly illuminating. it is part of a broad pattern. And it needs to stop.

  • Phil

    Dr Gushee, thank you for exposing this all too often event. My students, from my historically black college get this treatment here in East Texas daily. It is heartbreaking, racist and wrong.

    I have also seen this first hand, though the officer changed radically when he noticed me. What frightens me most is how pervasive this is: New York,Atlanta, Dallas, LA. And, here in Texas, there’s driving while Brown! With threats of getting lifelong citizens deported.

    I make reports to police officials that my students can’t make. I go on record, though I doubt how much it helps. Dr King would be sad, though not surprised.

  • Dan

    You can’t drive 19 miles over the speed limit and expect not to get pulled over and given a ticket. This has nothing to do with driving while black.
    look at the Sandra Bland who was initially pulled over for a bogus violation (leaving her turn signals on for too long) then ultimately arrested. Driving while black is a thing. When you are pulled over for simple traffic violations. Weaving, not signaling properly, no seatbelt on in the parking lot of a gas station (Columbia sc 2013), burnt out bulbs. Police use these simple violations hoping to find bigger violations that could lead to arrests. “I smell marijuana”, child support warrants (charleston sc 2014), weapons, and suspended dl to name a few. Driving while black is a thing. But this is not it. I have a 15 year old who can tell you what the speed limit is when not posted. Saying that no sign was visible is an excuse. And a very poor one.

  • J.C. Samuelson

    Way to miss the point, Dan.

  • Debbo

    Good article Dr. Gushee, and on point. This afternoon I listened to Trevor Noah, new host of The Daily Show, describe learning how to be black and relate to law enforcement in America. It was funny, painful and very similar to what you’ve written.

    Maybe us white Americans need to put on dark make up and go for a drive. Not only would we be educated, but we might also create hesitancy in abusive, fearful and/or racist cops.

  • Rosemary

    Thank you, Dr. Gushee, for this article. However, the situation you describe is not a case of driving while black as that term is commonly understood. Driving while black refers to racial profiling of black drivers who are pulled over by the police for a minor offense simply because she or he is black. The person might be searched, questioned, and possibly charged over something quite trivial. The case of Sandra Bland is exemplary. Imagine a police officer pulling you over because you failed to use a turn signal. Could anything be more trivial? In the example you cite, the problem is that the police officer seems to have taken on the current culture of policing which involves intimidation and rudeness, not to mention physical brutality. I know quite well how that police culture operates. I live in Chicago and know how this culture functions. I call it, and I know this is not original with me, the militarization of policing.

  • Rosemary

    The Root, theroot.com, often has articles about police brutality toward blacks. So does the New York Times. On October 25, 2015, the New York Times published an article, “The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black.” It is well worth reading.

  • JND

    “Body language means everything to me”

    As opposed to, say, justice or civilly or human decency? What do those mean to you, Mr. Police Officer?

    Does anyone really expect better from the police? This one’s a pig. Why not just say it — since he’s not around to arrest us for Contempt of Cop?