For most white people reading about Sandra Bland’s deadly encounter with the Texas police, what she experienced is almost unimaginable. If you’ve never had the experience of driving while black, it’s hard to get your head around how failing to use your turn signal could so quickly devolve the way it did into a police stop, the officer’s vicious words, the brutal police assault, the arrest, and then whatever horrific, fatal jail treatment Ms. Bland endured before she died. The reality is that the risks of driving while black and the privilege of driving while white exist in whole separate universes.
I am a white woman and (I am embarrassed to admit) a seriously bad driver. I’ve had a slew of police traffic encounters over the years. Yet, I have no doubt that my many traffic related police encounters would have differed in frequency, severity, and outcome if I were driving while black. For starters, I am a careless driver, but I’ve never been pulled over for something as petty as my only occasional use of the turn signal (in fact, in all honesty, I’ve always thought of the turn signal as kind of optional – once again, white privilege). Indeed, in my 20 years of sloppy, mediocre driving, nothing short of pretty serious speeding, being involved in an accident, driving the wrong way down a one way street (I told you, bad driver), or running a red light has ever warranted a police stop. When I have been stopped, sometimes the officers are friendly, and other times they are stern or paternalistic, but they are never aggressive and they are never threatening. I have never once been asked (much less ordered) to exit the car. Also, more often than not, I am given only a warning, rather than a ticket, and then sent on my way. This is white privilege.
Contrast my experiences with what happened to Ms. Bland. The police car dash-cam video is a must see. Disturbing highlights include the officer opening her door, trying to drag her from the car, and thrusting a taser gun at her head while screaming, “I will light you up!” Can’t imagine such hostile and aggressive treatment from a cop at a traffic stop? Again, white privilege.
Just for good measure, it’s worth noting that the statistics on driving while black show how decisive racial profiling is in police officers’ initial call of whether to stop a driver (without even getting into the dramatically different treatment once the stop happens). Driving while black makes you 31% more likely to be pulled over than driving while white, 23% more likely than driving while Latino. If you’re curious, watch this video showing a surreptitious experiment run on Long Island, a test case to see how hard it is to avoid getting busted for driving while black. Spoiler alert: in a white neighborhood on Long Island at night, it seems pretty near impossible.
Here’s the real thing about what I am calling white privilege: it is the minimum baseline treatment that everyone deserves. It is white privilege in that it is, all too frequently, only afforded to white people. People who are white are spared racial profiling by the police, while their black counterparts are subjected to much more frequent stops, often based on lame pretexts, and then often met with subjugating orders and aggression. But what I call privilege needs to become the baseline for everyone. Everyone has a right to expect the police to follow the constitution, not view their race as inherently suspicious, and not subject them to discriminatory treatment based on their race. This is Civil Rights 101. The fact that there is such a gaping chasm between what the constitution demands and the all too often tragic results of driving while black shows that there is still a long way to go.