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May 2, 2007 - Washington Post (DC)

Driving While Black Or Brown

By Eugene Robinson, Washington Post

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

This just in: Driving while black is still unsafe at any speed. The same goes for driving while brown.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report Sunday showing that white, African-American and Hispanic drivers are equally likely to be pulled over by police for an alleged traffic offense. In 2005, the year covered by the study, black drivers were actually less likely -- by a tiny margin -- to be stopped by police than drivers belonging to the other groups.

You might be tempted to conclude that the constitutional imperative of equal protection had finally been extended to America's streets and highways.

But you would be wrong. The study reports that African-American and Hispanic drivers who are stopped by police are more than twice as likely as whites to be subjected to a search. Specifically, police searched only 3.6 percent of white drivers pulled over in a traffic stop, while they searched 9.5 percent of African Americans who obeyed the flashing lights and 8.8 percent of Hispanics.

Compelling Evidence

The report says the "apparent disparities" between racial groups "do not constitute proof that police treat people differently along demographic lines," since there could be "countless other factors and circumstances" that go into the decision of whom to spread-eagle on the hood. All right, those figures alone might not constitute "proof" of bias that would persuade a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

They are pretty compelling, though, especially when you also consider that black and Hispanic drivers are much more likely to experience "police use of force" than whites.

And besides, the following paragraph in the report pretty effectively demolishes that "move along, folks, nothing to see here" disclaimer about bias:

"Police actions taken during a traffic stop were not uniform across racial and ethnic categories. Black drivers (4.5 percent) were twice as likely as white drivers (2.1 percent) to be arrested during a traffic stop, while Hispanic drivers (65 percent) were more likely than white (56.2 percent) or black (55.8 percent) drivers to receive a ticket. In addition, whites (9.7 percent) were more likely than Hispanics (5.9 percent) to receive a written warning, while whites (18.6 percent) were more likely than blacks (13.7 percent) to be verbally warned by police."

African Americans have been putting up with "driving while black" for so long that we've become somewhat cynical. For example, almost three-quarters of whites and Hispanics who were pulled over for allegedly running a red light or a stop sign were willing to concede that they had been caught dead to rights, while nearly half of African Americans in that situation believed they had committed no infraction.

It's Not Paranoia

About 90 percent of white drivers detained for some sort of vehicle defect, such as a busted taillight, thought the stop was legitimate, as opposed to 67 percent of black drivers.

Think that's just paranoia? Then try to reconcile the counterintuitive fact that while blacks are much more likely than whites to be arrested in a traffic stop, they are also more likely to be released with no enforcement action, not even a warning. This looks to me like powerful evidence that racial profiling is alive and well. It suggests there was no good reason to stop those people.

Of course, enforcing the nation's laws, capturing criminals, making law- abiding Americans safer is what we pay police officers to do, but not selectively. Whites, too, drive around with drugs, illegal weapons, open containers of alcohol or other contraband in their cars.

The numbers in the report suggest that if white drivers stopped by police were searched at the same rate as blacks or Hispanics, police would uncover evidence of tens of thousands of additional crimes each year, doubtless putting thousands of dangerous people behind bars.

We don't want a society in which everybody is being patted down by police all the time. We don't want a society in which people have to stand by the side of the road, fuming, while police arbitrarily rummage through the stuff in their cars -- shopping bags, children's toys, McDonald's wrappers -- on the off chance of finding something illegal.

If you're black or brown, though, may I see your license and registration?

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