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Driving while black

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2001

While appearing on the Sunday talk shows to discuss the police shooting of an unarmed black suspect and the race rioting it precipitated in Cincinnati last week, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume adduced evidence of what he contends is a law enforcement bias against blacks. Among other things, he noted that blacks comprise a significantly higher percentage of drivers stopped by police for traffic violations than their representation in the general population might otherwise predict. Since their only offense is "driving while black," Mr. Mfume and others sarcastically argue, it is clear that racism is alive and well in Cincinnati and other jurisdictions across America.

Reflecting our society as a whole, surely there are examples of police officers of all races scattered throughout many police departments who harbor and act on racial prejudice. Much can and should be done to enlighten or terminate these officers and to facilitate better, more polite and mutually respectful cooperation between law enforcement and poor, minority communities where, sadly, too many of our problems with crime and violence reside. The concept of community policing has begun to make inroads, and violent crime rates generally continue to fall in most cities with considerable minority concentrations.

But as Georgetown University Law Center professor David Cole points out in his 1999 book, "No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System," a young black man is roughly seven times more likely to commit and be convicted of a crime than is a young white man. Even if we presume, for the sake of discussion, that some or much of that alarming disparity can be attributed to racism either by cops at the street level or institutional biases within our courts we must nonetheless concede that black America is having trouble raising many of its young men.

In fact, when Mr. Mfume and others argue for increased funding for inner city public schools, Head Start and after school programs, and job training, they eagerly point to related disparities in black test scores and employment rates. They rightly rail against an achievement gap that threatens to doom a generation of young black poor people to subservient, second-class citizenship in the Information Age of the 21st century. And experts who study the achievement gap share Mr. Mfume´s concerns. They worry, too, that, because roughly 70 percent of black kids are born to and raised by single mothers, they are several times more likely to be poor, read below grade level, drop out of school, and commit serious crimes than are kids of any race raised by two parents.

Though I´ve taken an admittedly circuitous route in laying the groundwork for my principal point about driving while black, I ask this question: If we´re willing to accept the empirical fact that fatherlessness can so negatively impact one´s capacity to learn at school and otherwise succeed in life, is it so far-fetched to hypothesize that it can also hamper one´s capacity to learn to drive properly? After all, one of the most time-honored American traditions (at least since Henry Ford began to make automobiles ubiquitous) is Dad, with great trepidation, teaching Junior to drive.

If Dad´s not in the picture, and if high schools continue to cut driver education classes as they have during the past 15 years, is it any wonder that black kids are not getting the instruction they need to safely navigate our streets and highways in a manner that won´t draw the attention of police?

The issue of warrantless consent searches that police sometimes conduct following routine traffic stops (and that sometimes lead to arrests for serious crimes) is different altogether from the traffic stops themselves and, according to recent studies by the U.S. Customs Service and Justice Department, may well be one where actual racial bias is at play.

But to anyone insisting they have proved racism on the part of cops who struggle to keep our thoroughfares as safe as reasonably possible in the face of unprecedented traffic congestion and road rage merely by demonstrating that black drivers get a disproportionately high percentage of traffic tickets, I respectfully suggest they´ll have to come up with more evidence than that. And I´d invite anyone willing to confront this issue honestly to spend a Saturday morning or early afternoon observing traffic flow on H Street east of Union Station in the District of Columbia. It is a major, though struggling commercial corridor running through largely poor, black neighborhoods bustling with activity.

The double and triple parking without hazard lights, illegal U-turns, sudden lane changes without signals, speeding and general recklessness in vehicles that are often uninspected and in dangerous disrepair are standard operating procedure on H Street and enough to terrify even veteran cab drivers who have seen it all. (And we also should carefully differentiate here between "poverty" and "race." If poverty keeps one from getting a broken tail light fixed, that may in turn lead to one getting pulled over for said broken tail light. Do poor black folks with broken tail lights on their 1988 Chevy get pulled over more often than rich white folks whose 2-year-old Mercedes is regularly maintained by the finest mechanics money can buy? Sure they do.

But so do poor white folks, poor Hispanics, poor Asians and poor American Indians. That isn´t necessarily fair, but it´s not racism either.

Of course observations on H Street are anecdotal. And no university or bonafide research entity could hope to find funding for empirical studies of driving skills and habits as they relate to driving while black in our politically correct and racially charged environment. But if we´re going to conduct serious discussions about lingering inequalities in America that, presumably, we´d like to have lead someday to racial harmony and true equality for all, then it seems to me that black critics of the police and other majority white institutions should be equally willing to acknowledge the unfortunate and wholly correctable shortcomings of their own.

Darren McKinney lives in Northeast Washington and writes frequently about race relations.