Driving while black

January 06, 2003

It's been a decade now since Robert L. Wilkins had his Rosa Parks moment.

He and his family were driving home to Washington from a funeral in Chicago when a Maryland state trooper stopped them near Cumberland and asked to search their rental car. State police had been advised that drug dealers in the area were "predominantly black males and females" who favored rental vehicles. That was all the trooper had to go on when he pulled over a 29-year-old, Harvard-trained defense lawyer and his cousin, uncle and aunt to determine whether they were trafficking narcotics.

African-American children have been taught for generations by their elders to expect this sort of thing. They are taught how to respond in a way that preserves their dignity and avoids conflict.

But Mr. Wilkins also knew he had the right to deny consent for the search. He refused to be intimidated into it. Much as Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

He and his family stood on the roadside in the rain for nearly an hour while the trooper called in a drug-sniffing dog to establish probable cause for a search. No drugs were found.

The incident proved a watershed in police use of racial profiling. After 10 years in court with Mr. Wilkins and the American Civil Liberties Union, Maryland State Police have agreed to changes in training and other procedures designed to end the practice and weed out officers who fail to comply.

Legal milestones during the interim prompted increasingly detailed record-keeping on state police traffic stops. Last year, the General Assembly required such statistics to be kept by county and city police forces as well.

In many cases, those numbers show blacks are disproportionately asked to submit to searches. The court settlement will require police to correct abuses the statistics reflect.

Racial profiling won't entirely go away. Profiling on the basis of a variety of factors is a legitimate police tool that often requires judgment calls by officers. Some will make mistakes. Police may also continue to pressure drivers stopped for traffic offenses to yield to drug searches.

But thanks to Mr. Wilkins, there is broad acknowledgment in Maryland and across the country that systematic profiling on the basis of race is illegal - and there is heightened sensitivity to the more subtle forms of harassment as well.

He says he never intended to spark a confrontation. He mostly just wanted to go home. But with Los Angeles still smoldering after the acquittal of white officers who brutally beat Rodney King, Mr. Wilkins felt he had to take a stand.

We're all in his debt.

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