`Driving While Black' is part of the burden of being black

July 13, 1999|By Vivian B. Martin

A RANGE of tragic and bizarre events turned the '90s into a continuing seminar on race that nobody in the United States could help but attend.

Racial profiling, the law-enforcement practice that has targeted blacks and Latinos for motor vehicle stops and subsequent humiliation and abuses, however, strikes closer to the heart of the everyday realities of being black or brown in America than the Los Angeles riots, O.J. Simpson or debates over affirmative action.

Nevertheless, we haven't begun to talk about racial profiling in a way that indicates that the predominantly white public understands the experiences of doctors, lawyers, marketing executives, soldiers and even police officers, who are among the thousands of victims of so-called Driving While Black, or DWB.

I don't want to belittle efforts such as President Clinton's order that federal law-enforcement agencies keep racial and other statistics on people they question or passage of state legislation intended to end racial profiling. Legislation and public outcries are long overdue.

But the deeper reality is that DWB cases underscore what blacks have long claimed: No matter what their accomplishments or level of citizenship, blacks ultimately get treated as less than second-class citizens.

ACLU report

White skin is protective cover for some people who should be getting some of that scrutiny police reserve for people of color. David Roediger, a University of Missouri historian of labor and white racial identity, writes that 19th-century, working-class whites bought into racism because the exaltation of white skin was like a psychological lift or wage (as in salary) lift that helped them endure their poverty and low status. In the last breaths of the 20th century, cases of DWB from around the country compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union show that whites of all standing still have certain freedoms that elude seemingly privileged blacks.

The ACLU has collected stories ranging from that of the Army sergeant who survived Desert Storm and Somalia only to be humiliated for 2 1/2 hours while Oklahoma state troopers harassed him and a police dog sniffed at his 12-year-old son, to that of a black lawyer in Portland, Maine. In his case, a police officer who was going in the opposite direction did an immediate U-turn to follow him.

The fact that many of the victims are middle class, and some are rich and famous, is significant. Although it's just as wrong for police to harass lower-income blacks who are law-abiding, the experiences of blacks whose education or money can't protect them should make thoughtful people wary the next time they hear conservatives acting as if racism would not be a problem if black people would just get off of welfare.

Targeted group

Racial profiling, an official strategy borne of the war on drugs in the 1980s, gets justified based on a self-fulfilling premise. Blacks and Latinos are not the major dealers and users of drugs in this country, but because that's who police target, they account for a disproportionate number of drug arrests. The same rationale has been used in airports as U.S. customs agents, under the guise of concerns about drug trafficking, have forced a disproportionate number of black women, most of them innocent, to disrobe when re-entering the country.

As awful as these practices are, they only hint at the numerous surveillance operations and double standards blacks must navigate every day.

During one of his visits to the Hartford, Conn., area, my brother, who collects action figures and other toys, made one of his usual stops at a military game store. At the appointed time, I was where I said I'd be and could see him walking toward me across a block-long parking lot.

As impatient as I was for him to get to the car, and though I have shopped and dined on those streets for many years without incident, I sat watching and hoping he would not suddenly race-walk through the parking lot. Smart guy that he is, he didn't. As he got into the car he said, only half-joking, "I figured a black man running with bags in his hand would cause a lot of suspicion."

Think what you want about black paranoia. It's necessary for survival even as it creates the kind of stress that leads to all sorts of chronic illnesses that afflict blacks more than whites. Driving While Black is about a lot more than traffic stops; it's about a way of life.

Vivian B. Martin is a Hartford Courant columnist.

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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