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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Perils of driving while black, when gender does not matter

The phrase "driving while black" rose from an internal joke to quite the indictment on police behaviors in modern America, particularly urban centers. To be seen in an expensive car in a low-rent neighborhood meant you were a felony waiting to happen -- or flaunting the spoils of one that already took place.

It's a known and, for the most part, accepted terror among people of color with any sense of history and no sense of privilege. And the continued reality of this level of racial profiling stood clearly in reading Marc Lamont Hill's op-ed in today's Philadelphia Daily News.

In the past 20 years, there has been plenty of hand-wringing, political outcries and stabs at policy shifts. Those actions were sparked by high-profile incidents involving celebrities ranging from actors such as Jamie Foxx and Blair Underwood to athletes like NFL Hall of Famer Marcus Allen and Olympian Edwin Moses. Even the late ├╝ber lawyer Johnnie Cochran had a story.

While lessened due to more enlightenment and greater sensitivities, racial profiling continues, as do the raw feelings associated with both sides.

It's about the indignity and injustice of implicit guilt-by-complexion, one side yells. It's about policing streets where criminals too often are black and male, the other side screams back.

As with many things, the truth lies in a gray area between the two. But that doesn't erase the embarrassment or shame of feeling accused while just trying to live your life as a regular citizen -- or worse still, the worry and fear about a stop "gone wrong," like the tragedy that was the case of Jonny Gammage.

Once, after coming home from Harrisburg, having spent days in near captivity awaiting passage of the state budget, I finally made it back home. Having picked up my mom, I was going to treat her to some ice cream, a quick, casual outing -- and celebration.

After a week of being stuffed in suits and stockings in the summer heat, I was dressed down -- completely in-cog-negro in basketball shorts, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. Total chill mode, feeling good to be home.

We were pulling into my block when the sirens flashed and I was instructed to pull over. What I recall most was that sense of deep dread.

No speeding. No broken tail lights. No erratic driving. No reason to suddenly be pulled over on a warm, July evening. Except that it was an expensive car. And from behind, I looked like a dude from the 'hood driving it.

My hands gripped the steering wheel when the officer came toward the window, and I could see the slight panic rising in my mom.

The officer was taken aback to find that I was a female. And to beat that, I was a state employee, having just gone through an epic budget battle, a tale I recounted to him.

After looking at my state ID, driver's license and insurance, he seemed satisfied that I was, in fact, the law-abiding citizen I claimed to be. In fact, I was one working to retain funding the city needed. That he needed.

"You should be careful in a neighborhood like this," he cautioned, "With a car like that."

Had he read the license address more closely, he would have realized my house was just across the street.

I remember briefly biting my lip. Then, as politely as possible, I thanked him for "looking out for the citizens of Philadelphia," assuring him that "I felt safer knowing he and his partner were patrolling my neighborhood."

Several moments earlier, though, nothing was further from the truth.

So I understand the anger and frustration that marked Hill's piece, emotions that simmer among more than just African Americans. Ask tan-complected folks who "look Muslim" and travel across state or national borders and they will offer a whole other series of stories. Some are more than outrageous actions in the land of the free and home of the brave; they are revolting and frightening.

Sure, there are white folks who have a shared experience, but let's face it. The sheer volume by comparison simply pales.

Even if I don't agree with Hill's every assertion, I can say, even as a woman, at least once, I've been there. And it's not a comfortable place to be.


  1. Wow.



    I almost have no words except to say that I'm so sorry that you had to endure that humiliation. I am glad that you were not given a ticket or verbally harassed.

    Keep your head up Nia.

  2. How much worse the situation could have been had I not the skills to negotiate it, passed on by generations who have had to endure such treatment, just because. What always rankles, though, is needing to have those skills at all.