Most of us are familiar with the acronym DUI, meaning “driving under the influence.” A much smaller subset of the population will comprehend the meaning of DWB: “driving while black.”
As a middle aged white guy, I would probably not have found out about it, but for some second hand experience. A friend of ours used to work at one of the local Southern California movie theaters while he was in college. He has since graduated, gotten married, has a twelve year old and teaches high school. But one night while he was still in college, he drove home at the end of his shift around . He wasn’t alone; he had one of his coworkers with him, and he dropped him off on his way home. Moments after dropping off his friend, a siren and flashing lights appeared in his rearview mirror.
The first words out of the police officer’s mouth were, “How long have you been out of prison?” Josh had not done anything wrong, had not been speeding, had not turned without using his signal. Nothing. He was stopped for one reason and one reason alone: his friend that he’d just dropped off happened to be black. After telling him to get out of the car, looking through it with a flashlight, and making him open the trunk, the police officer let him go.
I had a student a few years ago who was a sixty year old pastor of a tiny church in Littlerock. After about a year and a half of taking classes, we had gotten off on some tangent in our class discussion and he happened to mention the issue of “driving while black” and told us stories about how many times he still got pulled over for no reason—on average about once a month. He’d find himself asked to “step out of the vehicle” and would be subjected to an inspection, despite having broken no traffic laws. But he was a black male, and he said that’s just par for the course. He’d gotten to where he expected to be pulled over and he simply tried not to think about it too much or else he’d get mad.
I’ve been driving for over forty years and I’ve only been pulled over twice, and both times that was for speeding. The officer didn’t ask me to get out of the car. He just wrote me a ticket. But then I’m not black.
And then there’s the story from one of the deacons at my church, who happens to be African American. His oldest son works for a southern California police agency.
Meanwhile, his younger son has been pulled over repeatedly, asked to get out of the car, had his car searched, and has gotten a ticket for playing his music too loud; once, two other police cars showed up for one of these incidents as “backup.” His older brother finds all this “peculiar,” to say the least, though he’s not overly surprised. After all, he’s a young black male, too, and he has experienced it himself often enough—though once he shows his ID as a police officer, at least they don’t make him get out of his car.
I’d like to imagine that these sorts of incidents are out of the ordinary, merely unusual anecdotes that signify nothing. But over the years I’ve been told too many stories by too many individuals: students, friends and colleagues—to make me not believe that something bad is going on. The deacon, a middle aged man who works as an engineer periodically has to travel to other states for his company—reports that he finds he experiences similar incidents every place he travels.
So recently, when I went to Wal-Mart to pick up a few things and I saw eight police cars surrounding a single car with two young black men in the parking lot, my first thought was different than what it might have been a few years ago. Instead of wondering, “what have those to guys done wrong,” my first question was, “why are they hassling those two guys? I’ll bet it’s because they’re black.” The fact that I soon watched the two young black men drive away a few minutes later without even a ticket makes me suspect that my question was not entirely out of line.
There is a reason why African Americans reacted differently to the OJ verdict than their white neighbors. When you experience racism on a regular basis, it affects how you look at the world. If you find yourself being watched, detained, stopped and questioned for no reason on a regular basis, you develop certain attitudes. When every time you walk into a department store you find yourself followed by a security guard, you come to believe that paranoia and the fear that “they don’t trust me because I’m black” is a rational response. If someone gets kicked every day, don’t be surprised when they start getting nervous any time they see a pair of boots.
Hundreds of years of slavery caused severe damage to us. The trauma has not healed yet. The former mayor (and current city council member) in my Southern California community happens to be African American, even though the city is mostly white and Republican. So if you automatically assume middle aged white guys are bigots, you need to examine your own prejudices. Our former mayor is very popular. I want to hope that he’s not getting pulled over on a regular basis just for DWB. Optimistically, I’d like to think that we’re in remission now when it comes to racism; but then we keep reading about horrors in the newspaper almost every day. We are obviously still not cured of the disease. Perhaps some day we’ll think no more about the color of a man’s skin than we do about the color of his hair or the color of his eyes. But sadly, that day has not arrived.