Flying Below Radar: Race, Privilege and the Evidence of Things Not Felt

Recently I was driving down I-95, between Baltimore and Wilmington, Delaware, behind the wheel of a GMC Yukon: a rental car procured a day earlier from the airport. It was larger than my normal rental, and more of an incipient threat to the planet than what I would have preferred. But I long ago learned that when it comes to travel on roads with which I am unfamiliar, it’s better to be ensconced in the heavy armor of a monster SUV than to glide along, self-righteous in a snub-nosed compact, the structure of which can all too easily be transformed into mush by a semi, driven by someone whose company is pushing him (or her), despite their own conscientiousness, to make a 14 hour drive in 12.

As I cruised along, I was only partially mindful of the social, cultural, and as of late, racial meaning of this roadway. I vaguely remember, as if tucked away in some far region of my conscious mind, the reports from about a decade ago, in which it was noted that this particular corridor was especially notorious for racial profiling. I remember, again, vaguely, that in the mid-to-late ’90s this stretch of road was the scene of an all-too-common injustice, in which a disproportionate number of black motorists were stopped and had their cars searched, despite being no more likely to possess illegal contraband than drivers of other races.

To be specific: about 70 percent of those pulled over by state troopers on this portion of I-95 were black, despite African Americans comprising only about 20 percent of all drivers and those speeding or breaking other laws on this road. Such disproportionality was hardly confined to I-95 in Maryland of course — similar problems have been documented in Florida, New Jersey, Louisiana, Missouri and elsewhere — but it was this part of the nation’s interstate highway system that, for a while at least, had commanded the attention of the courts, thanks to a successful lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of black motorists.

Since the time of that suit, I haven’t seen much in the way of new studies, or claims of profiling along I-95. Yet, given the anecdotal reports that one can hear from large percentages of persons of color who drive this or any other thoroughfare in America, it seems reasonable to suspect that the practice continues, albeit perhaps a bit less blatantly than before. National data still suggests, for instance, that black and Latino motorists are stopped and searched in far greater percentages than whites, even though they are less likely to actually have illegal drugs or other items on them than whites are.

But sometimes, even in the absence of hard quantitative evidence that something pernicious is going on, you can have one of those experiences that clues you in to the presence of something amiss. And driving down I-95, still on the Maryland side of the Delaware line, I was to have such an experience: the flipside, if you will, of racial profiling.

So it is at this point that I should probably make note of the fact that not only was I in a GMC Yukon, but it was a brand new Yukon, with shiny black paint and tinted windows — windows that were just dark enough to make it a bit difficult for one to discern, from the outside, the physical features of the driver behind the wheel or any passengers therein.

About 20 minutes before crossing into Delaware, I passed two state patrol cars, parked in the median between the North- and Southbound lanes, their respective drivers pointing their speed guns at oncoming traffic in either direction. As I had approached them I noted that I was hurtling along at slightly above the speed limit, but not by much — perhaps four or five miles faster than that which was legally protected — and certainly not by an amount that would normally trigger a ticket or even a stop by police. Nonetheless, as I approached I slowed a bit, so that by the time I reached the cars and passed them, I was driving at exactly the legal limit, along with the rest of traffic, equally mindful, I would imagine, of the presence of law enforcement.

Instinctively I look in the rear view mirror whenever I pass a police car, a habit that I suspect is not mine alone. Even when I know I have done nothing wrong, I do it, more or less on reflex. Cops make me nervous and always have, even though as a white man my reasons for such skittishness in their presence are far less rational than they would be for almost anyone else.

This time, as I looked in the mirror I saw — as is usually the case — the officer remain put, apparently having not clocked me going at a pace that would have necessitated a pullover. Relieved I averted my gaze from the mirror and returned my focus to the road ahead. Then, as if out of nowhere, I glanced back up and noticed a car advancing on me from a distance at a high rate of speed. At first I couldn’t tell that the approaching vehicle was a police cruiser, let alone the very cruiser I had eclipsed just a few moments earlier. Thinking it was someone wanting to pass, I moved over to the middle lane, leaving the lefthand lane open for whomever was in such a hurry.

But then, rather than pass, the car — the official provenance and inhabitants of which I now recognized — slowed to match my speed and pulled up parallel to the Yukon. Puzzled by this behavior, especially since the officers had not put on their lights, and thus, had done nothing to suggest that I had violated any rule of the road, I turned and looked at them. Perhaps they wanted to tell me that I had something hanging out of the rear of the SUV, or that I had a tire going flat, or something else, ya know, helpful like that.

But no. As I looked into the passenger side window of the cruiser, the reason for which it had pulled alongside me became obvious. The officer riding shotgun peered into my window, his hand just above his eyes so as to block the glare of the bright January sun. It took all of three seconds for him to get a good look at me, aided in that process by my own decision to turn towards him to see what all the fuss was about. A look of recognition — and, frankly, disappointment — washed over his face, right before he turned to his partner behind the wheel, shook his head in an easily readable “no” motion, and pointed to the quickly approaching turn-around spot in the median, as if to suggest that they should turn back around. Nothing to see here. Not having found what (or more to the point, whom) they were searching for, they did just that, and headed back south, presumably to join the stake-out spot where they had been perched previously.

Now, there is no way to know for sure what this interaction (or non-interaction as the case may be) meant. To suggest that there was anything racial about it — for instance, that the officers were hoping I was a man of color so they could pull me over on suspicion of something — will likely provoke howls of righteous indignation from those who deny the problem of profiling, or who accuse people of color and whites like myself of “making everything about race.” But that said, I would ask that you keep an open mind and just think for a second about the incident objectively.

Might they have been looking for a specific criminal suspect (white or of color), driving in a black late-model Yukon, and merely needed to get a visual to ascertain whether I was he? Sure. That’s possible. But given that there were two cars parked side by side in the median, facing opposite directions, both with speed guns focused on passerby mitigates against it. They were, from all reasonable inferences, looking for vehicles that were speeding. I was not speeding. Had I been, and they had decided to come after me as they did, they would have pulled me over and given me at least a warning if not a ticket. That they left a speed checkpoint to chase me and then, having gotten a look at my face, gave up and went back to square one, suggests they were looking for something else. And given the history of that roadway, policing in America, and race in the same, it is not at all untoward to suspect that my white skin was not that something.

But here’s what I know for sure, and what I hope all of us are willing to consider. Whether or not those officers were hoping to be able to pull over a man of color, and whether or not they would have done so, had I been such a man, isn’t really the important thing. What matters is that at no point would I, a white man, ever have to fear as I travelled that or any other interstate or road anywhere in my country, that my color alone might trigger sufficient suspicion in the eyes of law enforcement so as to warrant a stop, even when I had done nothing illegal. That is not a luxury possessed by anyone who is black or Latino in this country — their country — and that matters.

Had I been a man of color, heading to Delaware that day for a speech corresponding to what has now become a week-long commemoration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday — a possibility to be sure, given that most speakers for such events are people of color — how might the incident have differed? I don’t mean differed in the sense that I would have necessarily been pulled over. Again, maybe they weren’t looking for a black person. Maybe they were looking for a white female who had just robbed a bank and escaped in a black Yukon. But how might it have differed psychologically and even physiologically, as I, the black man, glanced into my rear-view and spied the police cruiser advancing on me at a high rate of speed? As I saw it pull even with me and then stay there? As I looked to my left and saw the white man with the badge, the gun, and the full authority of the state behind him, staring into my eyes, calculating in that moment whether I was the one, wondering if perhaps I might have a wheel-well filled with drugs, or a gun under the seat despite nothing but my skin to even remotely imply that either of these things might be true?

No matter how much money I might have, what size home, what kind of job, what beautiful and perfectly functional family, or my level of education, were I a black man in that situation (or a Latino in this era of generalized suspicion towards brown folks as de facto undocumented) everything would have been different, from my heart rate to the anxiety-related activity in my amygdala to the tightening of my muscles to the lump in my throat. And while these may appear to most whites as momentary discomforts with no larger import, imagine those kinds of experiences happening not once or twice, but regularly over a year, two years, a life. Imagine the uncertainty, the trepidation, the second-guessing of every glance, comment, or stare, made necessary by a lifetime lived in self-defense mode, the need for keen observation and interpretation of the most mundane interracial encounters made as critical to your safety and survival as nutrition, as vital as love.

See, that’s what race means, even now, and that is what (among so many other things) gives the lie to all claims of post-raciality made by those who refuse to feel what people of color are all too willing to tell them, if only they could hear. That some must contend with almost daily reminders that they are perpetual outsiders, perpetual suspects, perpetually in need of proving their belonging — indeed their very humanity — while others need not concern themselves with such things, leaves the latter with an edge, however subtle, and the former with a weighty and pernicious hindrance, the consequences of which cannot be overstated. To know that one can not only drive without subjecting oneself to presumptions that one is less-than, but also apply for jobs or loans while knowing the same, or raise one’s hand in class, hoping to demonstrate one’s brilliance to the teacher, similarly secure in the knowledge that that teacher will not ever see the hand as belonging to a walking, talking stereotype of incapacity matters. In a society as fully in thrall to bloodthirsty competition as ours, such an edge can make all the difference. It frees up cognitive space for problem solving rather than worry, and for confidence rather than self-doubt.

That advantage — one might even say, privilege — of being seen first as an individual rather than as the member of a defective and problematic group, can even be the difference between life and death. And here I am not merely referring to the way in which so many people of color have been killed by police who saw their cell phones, keys, or merely black skin as evidence of danger and shot first, only to ask questions never. Here I am referring to the way that black and brown folks who are fortunate enough not to go the way of Sean Bell, or Amadou Diallo or so many others, nonetheless have their lives shortened by the racialized stresses that flow from life lived as a problem.

Years of research about which most have no awareness — because it doesn’t make the news — tells us that the daily coping with racialization, which people of color learn to do from an early age, but which whites rarely if ever experience, leaves scars. It contributes to the excess release of stress hormones in the black and brown body, causing something called allostatic load — a reference to the short-circuiting of the body’s natural defenses against anxiety-producing events and traumas. That allostatic load then corresponds to higher blood pressure, higher rates of heart disease, and early death. The research has found that even affluent black folks have higher markers for allostatic load than poor whites, despite the real stresses that the latter contend with each day.

In a nation that was even remotely interested in becoming “post-racial,” let alone one that was well on its way to being there, one would imagine that issues like this — like the lives of millions of Americans, compromised by racial injustice — might register on the radar screens of all persons seeking to be president. That it might register in the discussions about health and health care, or criminal justice. That it might at least rate as highly on the measures of political importance as, say, cutting the capital gains tax or colonizing the moon.

But it doesn’t. It never has. And unless and until we stand up and demand otherwise, it never will.

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