Driving While Black: Highways, Shopping Malls, Taxicabs, Sidewalks – What to Do if You Are a Victim of Racial Profiling

R. Alan Thompson (Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice The University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, USA)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 1 June 2001



Thompson, R.A. (2001), "Driving While Black: Highways, Shopping Malls, Taxicabs, Sidewalks – What to Do if You Are a Victim of Racial Profiling", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 24 No. 2, pp. 263-266. https://doi.org/10.1108/pijpsm.2001.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited

A dark‐skinned black man driving a white Mercedes on the turnpike passes a state trooper who is positioned to observe traffic from the opposite side of an underpass viaduct. Upon checking his speedometer to confirm that he was driving 58 miles per hour – three miles per hour over the posted speed limit – the driver notices that the trooper has now pulled in behind him and follows closely for several miles. Out of frustration the driver abruptly pulls over and stops his car on the shoulder of the road. He exits the car and approaches the still‐seated trooper who verbally orders him back into his own vehicle. Having complied with this directive, the driver now notices that two other troopers, each in their own cruisers, have arrived on the scene. Eventually, the primary trooper approaches the vehicle and the driver naturally asks why he was stopped. Without responding to the question, the trooper asks the motorist for his license and registration which are dutifully surrendered. The trooper retreats to his cruiser and momentarily confers with other officers on the scene. Upon returning to the vehicle, the trooper asks the motorist if he had been drinking. Apparently unconvinced by the driver’s denial of this allegation, the trooper administers a series of standardized field sobriety tests. The motorist passes to the trooper’s satisfaction and is released from the scene without a citation or explanation for what had just occurred.

The major question emerging from this and similar scenarios is whether or not the driver of the Mercedes was the victim of what has recently come to be known as “DWB” – Driving While Black. Some observers may harbor little doubt in their minds that this is exactly what happened to the unfortunate motorist – he was followed, groundlessly detained and subsequently harassed by police for no other apparent reason than the fact that he was a black man driving an expensive car. Other observers may be less sympathetic to the driver’s plight and take issue with this assessment. For example, they might assert that it is neither illegal nor unreasonable for the police to briefly follow motorists in order to ascertain if they are driving under the influence or if the vehicle and/or occupants are wanted. Furthermore, officers should not be faulted for ordering drivers back into their vehicles once stopped alongside the roadway – a measure intended to ensure not only officer safety but also safety of the motorist and passing drivers. Finally, that which outside observers likely perceive as a conspiratorial effort by multiple officers to “gang up” on an unsuspecting motorist may instead be attributed to the somewhat common practice of stopping to ensure the welfare of fellow officers while they are checked out on traffic stops or responding to calls for service.

Given that the events which transpire during these types of interactions can be symbolically interpreted in any number of ways depending upon one’s political ideology or past experiences with law enforcement, it is important that scholars of police behavior work diligently to alleviate the ever‐increasing level of tension surrounding the racial profiling debate. One proactive method for dealing with the issue would be to educate citizens about why police officers behave as they do in situations that by all outward appearances seem to be non‐threatening. With any hope, such a strategy will help citizens understand that most law enforcement behavior stems not from a widespread desire to be overly‐authoritarian or oppressive but, rather, arises out of genuine concern for the personal safety of all involved parties. In this way, citizens who have future contact with the police will know how to behave in a manner that is less likely to result in unnecessary injury or violence. A more reactive method would encourage citizens who believe they have been the victims of racial profiling orunfair treatment by law enforcement to pursue various “after‐the‐fact” remedies ranging from phone call and letter‐writing campaigns to initiating formal litigation. While the relative effectiveness of either strategy for alleviating tensions surrounding the racial profiling debate is clearly an empirical question worthy of further consideration, the opportunity to at least critique the latter approach (i.e., informing citizens of various after‐the‐fact remedies) from a temporal perspective recently presented itself in the form of a book entitled Driving While Black: Highways, Shopping Malls, Taxicabs, Sidewalks – What to Do if You Are a Victim of Racial Profiling.

As the title clearly indicates, journalist and managing editor of Black Enterprise magazine Kenneth Meeks seeks to provide interested readers with “self‐help” information reminiscent of earlier publishing fads. This information is conveniently presented throughout the book in bullet form along with addresses and phone numbers of various activist groups following what are perhaps best described as brief second‐hand vignettes of alleged racial profiling. Interestingly, however, astute readers who are generally familiar with the various Constitutional principles guiding the enforcement and crime prevention duties of police officers are likely to question whether or not these instances rise to the level of actually violating someone’s rights. Rather, most illustrations used by the author in an effort to make his case only seem to represent a collection of isolated instances in which the aggrieved parties can, at best, claim to have experienced a sense of embarrassment or temporary inconvenience unlikely to prevail under existing legal standards.

Beyond concern that the author’s case studies may have the unintended consequence of misleading readers to erroneously believe that every encounter with law enforcement will result in their civil rights being trampled, there is more specific concern that the target audience is given conflicting and sometimes incorrect information regarding various police procedures and, even more importantly, the law itself. Perhaps the most glaring evidence of this criticism is found in the author’s own reference to the U.S. Supreme Court caseof Terry v. Ohio which is incorrectly cited as “Terry v. Illinois” (p. 41). Furthermore, observant readers cannot help but notice several inconsistencies in how the author advises citizens to behave while in an officer’s presence. In certain instances the target audience is provided with very sound guidance (i.e., follow directions, keep hands in plain view at all times, do not make any sudden movements, do not resist arrest, do not talk back, etc.), while in others they are told the exact opposite (i.e., draw a crowd in order to have witnesses who will back their side of the story). Finally, readers are not only left with the general impression that the Miranda warning is required in every encounter with the police, but incorrectly informed that they cannot be arrested for refusing to identify themselves to a police officer who has lawfully requested such information (p. 157). These and several other sweeping generalizations about the law and police procedure do not necessarily hold true in all jurisdictions. In fact, the State of Texas and others allow peace officers to cite or even arrest individuals for “Failure to I.D.” In sum, it seems hazardous and perhaps even negligent for someone with no formal training or professional certification in the practice of law to dispense advice that, no matter how well‐intended, may do more harm than good in situations where one’s liberty and life are potentially at stake.

These criticisms notwithstanding, the book’s most worthwhile quality is the pervasively reinforced message that victims of racial profiling should approach all encounters with the police in a behaviorally cautious and subdued manner. Maintaining a level head and resisting the temptation to argue over the legal limits of an officer’s authority can, according to one of the author’s sources, make “the difference between going to jail, going home, and going to the morgue” (p. 138‐9). In essence, the author seeks to help readers understand that the most important objective in any encounter with the police should not be who “wins” or “loses” some symbolic contest of personal wills but, rather, that everyone goes home alive – even if doing so means having to endure abruised ego or temporarily swallowing a healthy dose of pride. Having survived to live another day, affected individuals are encouraged to reflect upon the relevant details surrounding the encounter in order to effectively fight the battle on another, more civilized level. Accordingly, the author deserves credit for at least encouraging members of the target audience to avoid making rash decisions they may later regret.

The fact remains, however, that Driving While Black provides members of the target audience with erroneous and, in some instances, potentially dangerous information about the law and police procedure. This leads to the inevitable observation that the book’s substantive content was neither soundly researched nor editorially verified. Instead, the book appears to have been hastily assembled for the sole purpose of exploiting a niche in the publishing market rather than bringing any true insight or long‐term resolution to the debate at hand. Consequently, it seems safe to say that there remains ample opportunity for scholars of police behavior to join with qualified legal experts in addressing the question of whether or not racial profiling is a legitimate tool for preventing and detecting crime or, instead, constitutes an insidious effort on behalf of law enforcement to target and harass members of certain racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Hopefully, this review has identified those areas in desperate need of attention and clarification.

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