Friday, July 21, 2006

Driving While Black

I apologize in advance for the heavy subject on what I intended to be a light-hearted blog.

This story in today's Charleston Gazette points out a reality in our city. I'm not sure if this is a reflection of the culture of our police department, or maybe just our culture in general but I know it is a reality. Anyone who will open their eyes around town can't help but see that race matters when it comes to the way motorists are treated on traffic stops by police. Some folks call this phenomenon "DWB" -Driving While Black.

Nine times out of ten, when I see a traffic stop where there are two or more police cars present, the driver of the stopped car is black. I have seen with my own eyes that officers have a different body language when they are dealing with a black driver. A different tone of voice. A different attitude. In my observation it doesn't matter much if the officer is white or black either. I have seen black officers act exactly the same way as the white officers. It is puzzling, but it is true.

In this case, Mayor Jones publicly apologized to Mr. Johnson and his family. The mayor knows Mr. Johnson and his family personally and so he got involved, but there are many more Mr. Johnsons out there who have been treated the same way and never had an apology. Many folks in the black community simply accept this reality and never make waves about it. The unique circumstances of this case - that Mr. Johnson was a former police officer, that he worked for the Human Rights Commission and that the incident happened right in front of his workplace - it was those circumstances that made this a public incident. The same kind of thing happens every day to less notable people in less notable places.

I'm not singling out police officers. They certainly have every right to be as cautious as they feel they need to be when out there enforcing the law on our behalf. This racism is part of our culture and I just wish we'd face up to it. It is apparent in other arenas as well. For example, I frequent a West Side bank where the racial makeup of the customers is probably close to 50/50 black vs. white. I have seen over the years that the tellers consistently will require ID from black customers who wish to cash checks and I've never been asked for ID once. I have seen black customers turned away when they didn't have "proper" ID and then the same teller who doesn't know me from Adam will cash my check without any question. It is real, folks. It is all around us.

As for Mr. Johnson's case, it seems that he was certainly in the wrong and was indeed driving with tags that had been reported as stolen. As a former police officer he should have know better. But I know in my heart that if it had been me, a middle-age white man, driving the same car in the same location I would not have been hand-cuffed or treated so rudely. I think we all know it. If we don't then we are blind.

Mayor Jones is quoted as saying, " I just want to nip this in the bud.” Way too late for that, Mayor Jones. This thing has gotten way past the bud stage.


The Film Geek said...

What a great post, and one that rings true in my experience as well. It happens here in Huntington, way too often. How to counter-act it is a nearly impossible issue to overcome, but we gotta figure out a way. Somehow.

Charlie Tee said...

While I agree that more often than not (or at least more than we care to notice,or realize...), there are some officers that do tend to make a bigger issue out the color of one's skin when they pull over some drivers, rather than the actual offense for which they were stopped.
Coming from a larger city, and having family in law enforcement, I also have to say that will the former may have many grains of truth, the latter reality is, that if many of these folks driving would be just a little cognizant of their driving, the situation might be just a bit different.In other words,oftentimes it helps to do the "actual" speed limit, especially in a town the size of Charleston.
The greater reality is that we ALL just might be in too much of a hurry, which makes us all suspect.
I'm enjoying reading your blog,keep up the good work.
lovingly,Charlie Tee

Charlie Tee said...

I meant to add that I've known JL Johnson for years and he is the epitome of a law abiding citizen, and I truly hope that the apology issued was heartfelt, because JL is one of the reason that African Americans in this town have a great measure of short, he worked his ass off to help us gain the respect that we all deserve.

Anathema Device said...

Wow, that's just embarassing. :(