Driving While Black: New Supreme Court Ruling

"Driving While Black" has made a dubious entrance into the American lexicon. It was the title of a network news special on the practice of police officers pulling over black people -- especially men -- because of their race.Unfortunately, DWB will soon make the transition from margin to the center of that lexicon. The Supreme Court recently, in a 7-to-2 decision, gave police officers blanket authority to search citizens during traffic stops. Although the story was buried in the local newspapers, it was front-page news on the street corners of the black community.Police encounters with black citizens have provided troubling commentary on American race relations for many years. Police violence against African Americans jump-started some of our country's worst race riots -- Harlem in the 1940s, Watts in the 1960s, Los Angeles in the 1990s.This is one of many reasons African Americans feel so passionate about police behavior. The simple truth is that police officers treat black citizens differently than other citizens. It seems to be a game of power -- as scores of black men can painfully testify.Just after the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles, a friend, a black man in his 20s, was driving home with his white roommate. It was late at night. A police car passed them, going in the opposite direction, turned around, and pulled them over in a parking lot.The officer ordered the black man out of the car. Soon as many as eight other police cars had pulled into the lot, and officers began using racial epithets and threatening to make the young man "our Rodney King." When his white roommate started to get out of the car they ordered him to stay put, saying, "This doesn't concern you."The young black man began to cry. At that point, the police officers let him go.Long-time South L.A. resident Kamau Daaood finds no surprises in this story. "It's about power. The flashing lights, the gun pulled. They exert total control over you at that moment. They expect total cooperation.""It's a whole conditioning," he continued. "It's more than just pulling people over. It's almost like a testing thing, like back in slavery. Those that agreed to the humiliation, the overseers played with them then moved on. But those that showed no fear or spoke up for themselves, they tried to break them."This is a reality unfamiliar to most white Americans. In fact, many simply don't believe stories like this are all that common. It sounds too extreme, too racist. Easier to dismiss them as isolated events, a reminder of how things used to be.However this is part of the African American reality -- a reality that explains why jurors in the initial Simpson trial were inclined to believe the Los Angeles Police Department framed the famous defendant. It was not because the jurors are dumb or ignorant, as some have suggested. It was because they are black in America --- they or their friends have direct experience with the police that has made them suspicious of anyone connected with law enforcement.In dissenting in part from the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that with the ruling "the court puts tens of millions of passengers at risk of arbitrary control by the police."The question bothering young black men I've talked to is, "If police feel they can stop and harass black drivers at will, even though it's illegal, what will happen now the courts have given them the legal right to stop and search people without reasonable cause?"The Supreme Court decision shows how out-of-touch the Justices are with the lives of black citizens. To increase police officers' power in this way is to encourage an atmosphere where the rights of African Americans can be violated with impunity.Unfortunately, the ruling is unlikely to be reversed until somehow millions of white Americans come to know the intense fear caused by flashing lights in the rear view mirror, an officer screaming "keep your hands where I can see them," a gun pointed directly in your face -- all for a broken tail light.


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