White privilege on the road

With all the stories of police racism and brutality in the news, I''ve been thinking about the first time I was pulled over by a cop. Looking back, I did all the wrong things, and I shudder to think what would have happened if I had been black.

It was almost midnight and I was driving back from Wendy''s. There''s no traffic. Suddenly I see police lights behind me. There''s no shoulder to pull onto, so I take the next right and pull over on a side street. I can feel a panic attack coming on, but I force myself to breathe. I don''t think I''ve done anything wrong.

“License and registration?” I flip through my folder and find the registration.

“That''s actually two weeks out of date.”

“Oh really? I''m sure I paid it, I must have forgotten to save the new document.”

“I pulled you over because you have a headlight out, I think it''s your right headlight.”

He walks to the front of my car to check. Without thinking, I open my door and step outside to follow him.

“Wow, you''re right.”

I walk back to my car and wait for him to run the plates. Returning to my car, he is all smiles. “Everything checks out. Just a warning about the headlight. By the way, we have the same birthday, you''re just 2 years younger. And in the future, you shouldn''t get out of your car when you''re pulled over. Personally I didn''t feel threatened, but next time wait inside. Have a good night!”

I didn''t think much about it at the time, but looking back, this encounter had white privilege scrawled all over it. He gave me the benefit of the doubt and was professional, but friendly. I''m a 6 foot tall fidgety male; how much darker would my skin have to be for him to feel threatened? Especially with my jumping out of the car to follow him.

I'm glad he didn't feel threatened, but the Harvard Law Review writes that “Officers learn to treat every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making” and “Even acting friendly, officers may be told, can make them a target.” [1]

I want to empathize. Black Americans are more likely to commit violent crimes [2] and have violent encounters with police. So why shouldn't officers be more alert than with white suspects? Yes, higher crime rates are probably caused by higher poverty rates [3], but doesn't it still makes sense for officers to prioritize their own safety? The answer is this is the wrong mindset because it becomes self fulfilling. Police are more likely to aggravate black suspects, which encourages more aggressive reactions, creating a violent spiral (eg [4]). It's time to #breakthespiral.

Posted by Abraham