I'm Polite, Middle-Class and Harassed By Police. Here's Why.

 

(AP Photo/The Progress-Index, Patrick Kane)

I was eighteen, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It was dark, and I was driving with my sister when I got pulled over by the police. We were visiting relatives in Mississippi and had just left our cousins’ house, heading back to an aunt’s house to meet up with our parents. My mother had let us go out for a drive in her car, a red Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Explorer. Driving in that car, I felt a certain level of freedom and prestige. So, being the teenagers that we were, music blasting, rehashing the night’s events with each other, my sister and I made our way back, feeling carefree.

We stopped at a stop sign, then proceeded to go forward when a police siren from across the street grew louder, as a squad car sped toward us. Not thinking that it was me they were after, I slowed down to let the cop car pass me. When the policeman turned on his horn and shot his light toward our car, I immediately froze. We were in the Deep South, two teenagers in my mother’s car, and there were no other cars on the street. Actually, there was no one else around, even on foot. Heart racing a mile a minute, and ignoring my mother’s advice that as a young woman I should never stop for anyone on a dark empty road alone, especially with my younger sister in the car, I pulled over.

One by one, in quick succession, other police cars showed up. All of a sudden, we were surrounded. By the time the initial officer had gotten to my car, there were at least five other cars surrounding my mother's Explorer. 

A million thoughts raced through my head: What did we do wrong? Why did he pull us over? Is he going to make something up so we go to jail? Are they going to beat us? Are we going to die?

The officer came up to the window and told us he pulled us over because we "rolled though the stop sign."  I replied, "No we didn't; I made a complete stop." Angry that he was being challenged, he asked for my license and registration and when I produced the documents, he incredulously asked me whose car was I driving. I told him it was my mother's. As he turned back to his car, other officers got out of theirs and walked toward us. They surrounded our SUV, flashing their flashlights through our windows, hoping to find something. My sister started crying. I started to tear up. I didn't know what was going to happen to us. We had done nothing wrong. The only thing that was wrong was the color of our skin.

After holding us for about an hour on the side of the road, the officer who had pulled us over eventually let us go, and I was relieved. If you’re inclined to think this was just a one-time thing, or a Deep-South thing, let me tell you another story.

I was in my twenties, driving to work one evening in Washington, D.C. After having graduated from college there, I had decided to stay, but my car was still registered in my home state—not an unusual occurrence among the mobile population of the District. After stopping at a stop sign, I turned onto the street where my job was, when I got stopped by police. The cop pulled me over, he said, because I had "rolled through a stop sign." I may be wrong, but I have come to understand the term "rolled through a stop sign" as code for "just being black." 

When the cops checked my tags, they immediately handcuffed me, put me in the police car and I was carted off to jail. Yes, I was arrested and taken to jail because I had expired tags. Although D.C. law allowed for this kind of harsh treatment at that time, it’s not as if it was a mandatory minimum. (The city council has since changed the law to remove the penalty of jail for expired registrations, presumably because of the arbitrary nature with which the law could be applied: you could get slapped with $100 fine, or up to $1,000 fine and/or 30 days in jail.)

That cop could have just as easily issued me a ticket and impounded my car. This is a minor offense. I posed no threat to society. I did not have a criminal record. But I’m convinced that the color of my skin gave me a criminal record.

I was a block away from my job, heading into work. Embarrassed, I had to call my boss to tell him I was being arrested and incarcerated.  

People wonder why African-Americans distrust police officers. Every run-in that I have had with police has been a negative experience. And I have lived a relatively privileged life. I went to private schools, starting from preschool, all the way up to graduate school. I know how to tone down my persona to be non-threatening. I comply when asked. My general demeanor is very friendly. And the harsh reality is that I know that still won't be able to save me if I happen upon the wrong policeman or highway patrol officer or mall cop, or vigilante citizen, or homeowner. The color of my skin puts me at grave risk. As much as my past experiences have shaped my life, I worry even more for the safety of my children.

Trayvon Martin. Renisha McBride. Michael Brown. Marlene Pinnock. Eric Garner. Jordan Davis. Randolph Evans. Ezell Ford. John Crawford. Emmitt Till.

I could go on.

The targeting of citizens by authorities based on racial stereotypes is a serious issue that needs refocusing—an issue that needs to looked at starting from the root and not the leaf. It needs to be addressed with the children who will grow up to become police officers. Before they become judges, or jurors or executioners. We need to combat the inherent fear that white people have of people who are not white, and especially of African-Americans.

I'm not going to rehash why black lives matter. I have done that over and over and over again. What I will do is talk about what needs to be done in the future for our children, and our children's children so that we will prepare them and equip them with the tools necessary to combat this fear and these stereotypes.

I can remember entering kindergarten in a nearly all-white school, and I knew instantly that I was different from everyone else, but I didn't know why. What I did know is that my difference was not some quirky, neat character trait; my difference was something to be repelled. I can remember schoolmates calling me nigger, blackie and telling me I had cooties, so I should be avoided. And this was all before the third grade.

Some will write off these experiences as kids being kids, but if we were to look closely at the situation as the parallel of what feminists believe are the lessons boys need to learn about appropriate behavior toward girls so they will respect women later in life, it would do us a world of good if we started early.

Kids form their opinions about different races of people at a very early age, through their parents' teachings and through their school interactions. It makes sense that teaching about diversity should be a main component of developing the overall intelligence of a young mind.

My son will enter pre-K in the fall. My husband and I have spent months trying to find a school that would meet our criteria—a school that will foster his sense of independence, a school that has a good curriculum to enhance a child's natural ability to learn and, most importantly, a school that is truly diverse. But what good is going to a diverse school if the children themselves aren’t taught how to interact with one another?

If a core curriculum centered on diversity and inclusion were implemented nationwide for the early formative years (pre-K through third grade), then maybe we could start to make a step toward that post-racial era we dream of. These principles need to be taught early, not left to a one-day workshop in the workplace when we’re adults.

Perhaps you’ve been to one of these mandatory trainings at work that are supposed to "challenge your belief system" and "explore looking at a co-worker differently." It's all a bunch of crap. Because working on diversity as an adult works on the leaf, not the root.

If we were really trying to do something about diversity and inclusion why wouldn't you start young? Why not include diversity as a core part of the early learning curriculum?  

After the police killings of Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, people have been talking again about diversity training for police officers. That may soothe the public's perception of the problem, but that won’t solve the problem of police profiling of non-whites.

Teaching these principles to children while they are young might counteract negative beliefs. We try earnestly to believe now that it doesn't, but these recent reports of police brutality show that we have yet to gain that gold star. If children are given the space in school to properly navigate diversity within the peers that they interact with, we might finally have a chance at building that post-racial society.

 

Comments

The remedy is a joke. Where do kids learn bigotry? Home, church, and school. Teachers represent the communities and transmit its values, no matter what the curriculum and the textbooks say. And, yes, I do not have a simple remedy. But when people like Paula Deane grow up in the period in which I grew up and "learn" nothing, you know that the problem is virtually genetic. The messianic belief that "training" will change character is a very dangerous myth. What we need, as a modest first step, is PSYCHOLOGICAL PROFILING of those who want to go into law enforcement. Most of them have deep-seated issues along racial, gender, and economic lines; they should be weeded out before they pretend to enter "public service.".

The remedy is a joke. Where do kids learn bigotry? Home, church, and school. Teachers represent the communities and transmit its values, no matter what the curriculum and the textbooks say. And, yes, I do not have a simple remedy. But when people like Paula Deane grow up in the period in which I grew up and "learn" nothing, you know that the problem is virtually genetic. The messianic belief that "training" will change character is a very dangerous myth. What we need, as a modest first step, is PSYCHOLOGICAL PROFILING of those who want to go into law enforcement. Most of them have deep-seated issues along racial, gender, and economic lines; they should be weeded out before they pretend to enter "public service.".

The remedy is a joke. Where do kids learn bigotry? Home, church, and school. Teachers represent the communities and transmit its values, no matter what the curriculum and the textbooks say. And, yes, I do not have a simple remedy. But when people like Paula Deane grow up in the period in which I grew up and "learn" nothing, you know that the problem is virtually genetic. The messianic belief that "training" will change character is a very dangerous myth. What we need, as a modest first step, is PSYCHOLOGICAL PROFILING of those who want to go into law enforcement. Most of them have deep-seated issues along racial, gender, and economic lines; they should be weeded out before they pretend to enter "public service.".

When my son was in high school in 2007, he had 2 friends who were black. We were always terrified when he was out with them. Those boys were good kids from good families and every bit the decent young men that our son was. Yet, over half the time when one of those kids were driving, they were stopped. Several times the car was searched. This is nothing new. When our law enforcement folks break the law and tell bald faced lies so they can harass someone of color, we need to do something!

Just wanted to add one name to your list of murdered black folks:

Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a 68-year-old African-American Marine veteran, was fatally shot in November 2011 by White Plains, NY, police who responded to a false alarm from his medical alert pendant and demanded that he open his front door. Despite his objections and statements that he did not need help, the police broke down Chamberlain's door, tasered him, and then shot him dead. http://www.democracynow.org/2012/3/29/killed_at_home_white_plains_ny

The little African American girl who lived across the street from us when I was a teenager is a now a grown woman with four extremely well-behaved, polite, and beautiful teenager children. Shortly after the Travvon Martin killing, she wrote on her Face Book wall of her fear of letting her sons travel with friends by car to a nearby major metro area for a concert. She was afraid that just because they were black they might be singled out for violence. She was forbidding them from wearing hoodie sweatshirts. The agony in her words hit me like bricks. In all the parental worries I have had in my life about my own children, I have not had to deal with that fact-based fear. I am so, so sad and sorry. Only when our neighborhoods become integrated on levels of race and income will we overcome these biases.

Training our local forces needs to be overseen by objective citizens from all areas of the community. The Training is what matters, and it will impact every cop on the street, every day in every thing they approach.

Thank you for a superb article. Eloquent witness to a problem that is endemic across the country.

Thank you for a superb article. Eloquent witness to a problem that is endemic across the country.

I am white and grew up in NYC in the 50s and went to a racially and religiously diverse Public School . We were taught both racial and religious tolerance in school by singing songs in the curriculum. One song began," You can get good milk from a brown skinned cow, the color of its skin don't matter any how… Another song began George Washinton liked good roast beef, Chaim Solomon liked fish, but when Uncle Sam served Liberty, they both enjoyed the dish. This may sound unsophisticated, now, but we were in elementary school and it was effective and it exhibited a will by those in charge of education to work to break down old prejudices. It also had the effect of making those of us who were in a minority to feel included which was equally important. I doubt that those songs are taught any longer.

The problem is bigger than just the police doing racial profiling. Black people may get pulled over more often, but I know of plenty of instances where white friends of mine have been verbally abused by cops. The fact is many police forces have an authoritarian, paramilitary culture that borders on thuggish, and this gives license to bad cops who will treat every infraction, however minor, as though it were an actual crime. Just last week I missed a 15 mph speed limit sign at an airport and received a 5-minute lecture from a transit cop. He seemed to be trying to badger me into confessing I'd deliberately ignored the sign. What's hard to convey in writing is the nasty tone in which this was delivered. And I'm a 60-ish white guy, old enough to be the cop's father. Lucky I look "respectable". When I was young, and long hair marked you as a "hippie," I took plenty of abuse from cops.
Black people and other minorities get it worse, yes - but if a bad cop perceives anybody as "low class" - meaning not likely to have powerful connections - he'll feel free to play mind games. Better training would cut down on that, but the tone has to be set from the top.

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