An early lesson about `driving while black'


July 25, 1999|By Norris West

IT DIDN'T TAKE long for my son to get a small dose of the treatment he will get for years to come when committing that grievous offense: Driving While Black.

My son is 17 and a new driver. My wife and I made him wait an extra year before he could get a learner's permit. He soon will attend driving school. Meanwhile, I am his temporary instructor.

I have to admit he's been much better on the road than I expected. He's a conscientious young man whose biggest fault is a tendency to be excessively cautious, a trait I nonetheless would never trade for the other extreme. He may turn out to be a speed demon, but at least he's not one yet.

Overall, our few lessons have gone with remarkable ease. We've had a couple of close brushes with curbs and some wide turns. No big deal. The lessons usually include just the two of us, but last week my other teen-age son and his friend tagged along to navigate the streets of Columbia.

The driver was doing fine on the hot, sunny Saturday afternoon when excessive caution set in again. He had a green light while heading south on heavily traveled Cedar Lane in Columbia and preparing to make a left-turn onto Hickory Ridge Road.

The only approaching traffic was a car approaching slowly from the opposite direction, more than a block away. My teen-ager waited patiently -- too patiently -- for the northbound car to pass before making his turn.

Opportune time to teach

I thought this presented an opportune time to teach. I instructed my young driver to pull over to the side of the road, out of traffic, so I could talk for a minute or two about giving himself enough time -- but not an eternity -- to make a turn. He pulled to a place where he clearly would not interfere with traffic.

I was halfway through my speech about judging the distance for turns when I noticed two police officers in a cruiser observing us from a short distance.

As my lecture continued, the cruiser pulled up from the opposite direction, and the driver asked with contempt in his voice: "What are you doing?"

Is that how the officer greets all motorists stopped by the side of the road? Or does he reserve that attitude for young, black male drivers or cars with four black males? I certainly didn't get the feeling he and his partner were there to serve and protect.

Growing up black in Philadelphia, where a police commissioner-turned-mayor named Frank Rizzo once struck fear in the hearts of the guilty and innocent alike, taught me to remain calm and respectful in such situations. Somebody has to keep a cool head, I had been taught, and don't expect that person to be the officer.

Too many innocent people in Rizzo's day ended up with bashed heads for exercising their rights.

While most police officers I have encountered in recent years have been professional and courteous, Rizzoesque police officers are not extinct.

Indeed, because some police officers are prone to prejudge, African-Americans nationwide rail against racial-profiling. That is also why residents in Annapolis this spring vigorously challenged a bill that would give police in the state capital more power to arrest loiterers, even if it helped fight crime.

Racial profiling and loitering are tools for law enforcement, but are tools easily misused.

Last Saturday, I was glad to be in the car with the teens. Fortunately or depressingly, I've grown too old to fit the profile (generally teens to early 30s) that some officers use to stop African-Americans they suspect of drug-dealing or other crime.

I wanted to show the youths how to avoid trouble, even if it meant being respectful to officers who showed no respect. That's not a popular idea. There are times to fight, but most of the time it is more important to make sure that you drive away in your own car, and not in the back seat of the officer's.

`Get off the road!'

I replied, "Officer, this is a driving lesson. I'm trying to correct something."

The officer paused, then said, just as contemptuously as he had the first time: "Do me a favor."

Another pause.

"Get off the road!"

He drove away, and another lecture ensued. I told the group that although nothing serious happened there, it doesn't take much for an arrogant statement from an officer to become an incident. If I had responded in the same tone the officer used, things could have gotten ugly real fast.

It shouldn't be this way but is.

It wasn't a major incident, so I didn't even think about filing a complaint, although my wife later placed a call to the police chief's office.

The lesson for my teen-age sons -- and perhaps even my daughter -- is that they will face many hazards on the road, and, unfortunately, some of them will be wearing badges. It is a hazard African-Americans should not have to experience. Until this discretionary tool is eliminated, I can only pray my children will escape the dangers unscathed.

Norris P. West, previously The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County, now writes about Anne Arundel County. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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