Culture

Driving While Black: A Survival Guide

I’m a black man. I’ve been pulled over plenty of times, perhaps more often than my white counterparts. Perhaps not. Either way, I confess that each and every time was for a legitimate reason. Whether I was speeding, driving with a light out, driving with expired tabs, or rolling past a stop sign, there was a reason for the police to stop me.

When I list it out like that, it sounds pretty bad. In truth, judging by the behavior I see on the road everyday, my habits are average. Point being, I have never been pulled over without legitimate cause.

In spite of this, I have a clean driving record. I’ve been ticketed before. But it’s been so long since the last time that nothing comes up when people check. I’ve certainly had moments when I thought that I would be ticketed, because I deserved to be. Yet I’ve managed to skate by with warnings.

I can’t say for sure why. You’d have to ask the officers involved. But I imagine it has something to do with my conduct during a stop.

Here’s my checklist for whenever the cherries light up behind me:

  • Signal my intention to pull over with my turning signal, and by slowing my vehicle
  • Find a safe place to pull over, minimizing traffic obstruction and maximizing space for the officer’s approach
  • Turn off my engine
  • Turn on my interior dome light
  • Place my keys on the dashboard
  • Remove my license and insurance card from my wallet and have them at the ready
  • Roll down my window
  • Place my hands on the steering wheel in full view of the approaching officer
  • Greet the officer
  • Punctuate sentences with the words “sir” or “m’am,” whichever is appropriate
  • Answer questions and follow instructions cooperatively
  • Thank the officer for his or her service

Following this checklist, not only have I managed to avoid citations despite deserving them, I’ve also – strangely – avoided beatings and getting shot.

Next: A black National Guardsman survives a traffic stop…

Author Steven Hildreth, Jr., also black, has had a similar experience. His Facebook post detailing a stop by the Tucson Police Department went viral. He wrote:

The lights go on and I pull over. The officer asks me how I’m doing, and then asks if I have any weapons.

“Yes, sir. I’m a concealed carry permit holder and my weapon is located on my right hip. My wallet is in my back-right pocket.”

The officer explains for his safety and mine, he needs to disarm me for the stop. I understand, and I unlock the vehicle. I explain that I’m running a 7TS ALS holster but from the angle, the second officer can’t unholster it. Lead officer asks me to step out, and I do so slowly. Officer relieves me of my Glock and compliments the X300U I’m running on it. He also sees my military ID and I tell him I’m with the National Guard.

Lead officer points out my registration card is out of date but he knows my registration is up to date. He goes back to run my license. I know he’s got me on at least two infractions. I’m thinking of how to pay them.

Officers return with my Glock in an evidence back, locked and cleared. “Because you were cool with us and didn’t give us grief, I’m just going to leave it at a verbal warning. Get that headlight fixed as soon as possible.”

I smile. “Thank you, sir.”

I’m a black man wearing a hoodie and strapped. According to certain social movements, I shouldn’t be alive right now because the police are allegedly out to kill minorities.

Maybe…just maybe…that notion is bunk.

Maybe if you treat police officers with respect, they will do the same to you.

Officers don’t know what they are walking up on during a stop. Anything I can do to put their mind at ease and make their job easier will make the experience safer for both of us.

I don’t always agree with the laws which officers are called upon to enforce. I care about civil rights and seek reform where needed to secure those rights. But the side of the road during a traffic stop is not the place to litigate such concerns. My safety, and the safety of any officers engaging me, takes precedence in the moment. We can argue procedure after the fact.