January 17, 2005

Black and White

I have this student who comes from a city in a different part of the country. CityBoy is intelligent, articulate, well-spoken. His parents are educated and wealthy. He came to our small campus because his career goals are very specific, and we are a specialized school.

CityBoy stayed one summer to do an internship here in the region of Snowstorm City. During this two-month period, he was stopped by cops on 17 different occasions, despite the fact that he is a careful driver who obeys all the rules. Repeatedly, he has been called rude names by cops. They insult and harass him. They ask him to step out of the car. They demand he be searched for drugs or tested for alcohol. He handles this by remaining calm and not saying a word. He is careful not to have anything in his hands, not even a cell phone. He remembers how Johnny Gammage was killed.

CityBoy is black.

I have lived in this area my whole life, and I too have been stopped by cops. On every occasion, it has been because I was doing something wrong. I have been stopped four times because I did not have an up-to-date inspection sticker on my windshield, which meant that I was driving illegally, an offense in this state for which cops can give a ticket. Several times I've been stopped for having a tail light out, another ticketable offense. I am a terrible driver because I tend to daydream when I drive. One time I was stopped by a cop for going the wrong way on a one-way street. One time I made an abrupt turn without signaling and cut off the car behind me, who happened to be a cop. Another time, I made a left turn into oncoming traffic and bashed into a truck. One time a cop clocked me going 47 mph in a 20 mph zone past an elementary school. (In my defense, school was not in session.)

Number of tickets I've gotten: 0

Cops are always polite and nice to me. They use words like please and thank you. They never search me. They never ever ask me to step out of the car. I'm never afraid because I have never had any reason to be afraid of cops.

I am white.


Anonymous said...

Is this post in honor of MLK day? Nice.

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

This is an important post. Acknowledgement of our benefits of structures of privilege, and our tacit participation in those structures, goes a long way toward gaining an understanding of the constructedness and power of what is usually unnamed, invisible, yet ubiquitous in its presumptuousness: Whiteness.

Ianqui said...

My God. How many people get stopped 17 times in two months? Are police stops public record? Someone should go to the police dept and demand to see all the people who were stopped 15 times or more in two months. What if it turned out that they were either all black or legitimate, known criminals? Because certainly they're never going to look those stats up on their own.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

This is so common. And so wrong.

Anonymous said...

In 2001 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by a Cincinatti police officer because he was black and had a wallet in his hand. First reports on the killing indicated that Thomas had some large number of warrants out for his arrest (thus somehow justifying the killing?). Later, it was acknowledged that most of these (all? - I don't remember) corresponded to over-due traffic tickets that Thomas had not been able to pay. This is one side effect of one set of enforcement rules for one group, and another for another - greater cost burden, and automatic conversion to criminal status if one can not meet the cost. After the killing, a research assistant of mine (who is a black male, and is from Cincinnati) went into debt to pay off an outstanding ticket he had.

Anonymous said...

It's an important thing to remember. The forever double standard some people live by. It's a reflection on the community. That you've chosen to define it black and white and also urban and rural says quite a bit about your experience with it. I live in the south and have struggled with confronting the community and familial prejudices all my life. I've found it better in more urban areas but because work brings in people from everywhere, the small town mindset pervades every office and every branch of government even in supposed more cosmopolitan cities.
Michelle Palmer

jo(e) said...

Ianqui: Every couple of years someone does some investigative reporting and a few people get fired over the inequities, but then the cycle seems to just continue. And since 9/11 the community seems more tolerant of racial profiling; I think we've gone backwards on some of these issues, all because of the fear of terrorism. Stupid, of course, since plenty of white men have been terrorists. And then of course there are all those white people in the community who think racism doesn't exist. Because of course, they don't see it.

Vito said...

Some ten years ago, I was at a dinner at the Orange County Catholic Worker when the subject of racial profiling came up (in the context of an O.J./Rodney King discussion). Noticing that we were at a table of mostly white people but two black people (one of whom was my roommate at the time), I said, let's try a quick experiment: Let's go around the table and have everyone tell the story of the last time they were stopped by the police.

About half the white people had never been stopped by the police, and the others had not been stopped in years. Those who had been stopped had committed traffic violations and about half were given tickets. The two black people had distressingly similar stories. They were stopped for no discernible reason, their cars were searched and so were they. My roommate's last stop I knew about because the police called me at 11p the night before to confirm that he did indeed live in the neighborhood.

The guy who couldn't believe that O.J. had been acquitted had a bit of an epiphany that night,