The pain of racial profiling

If you drive long enough, you’re going to get pulled over by a police officer, a state trooper, a sheriff’s deputy or somebody else with a badge. It’s as common as riding a rollercoaster. Even if you don’t do it often, you’ll do it at least once in your lifetime.

For many of us, traffic stops usually come at a cost–”anxiety, frustration, a few four-letter words, 10 minutes of our time or a $50 ticket. Soon afterwards, our memories of these scrapes slowly fade away.

But for some of us, a traffic stop can provide a lifelong memory worth forgetting. Yes, I’m talking about those traffic stops; the ones defined less by their circumstances and more by the feelings they leave with you.

It was nearly 14 years ago when I had my “Driving While Black” traffic stop–” simply referred to as DWB by many nowadays, because it has become so prevalent. I stood behind the car as I was told. One of the two state police officers stood next to me chit-chatting. His partner stuffed his hands between my seat cushions, lifted the floor mats, rummaged through the glove box and emptied my trunk. He was looking for something and bent on finding it. Drugs. Guns. Not finding anything, he turned to me: “Do you have anything on you that you don’t want me to know about?”

Anger boiled within me as the officers walked away empty-handed and continued down Interstate 80. I sat there for what seemed like half an hour, numb, hands and forehead on the steering wheel. I had been drained of my power and dignity. I was abandoned, naked and hollow. There was nothing I could have done to stop those officers. But the thing that bothered me the most was that I couldn’t escape their suspicion. As a black man, I would always wear a cloak of suspicion. I could no more easily remove it than I could shed my own skin.

The experience crystallized for me that my appearance, to some, would always attract fear and ridicule. Those officers stole my innocence along the side of Interstate 80 that day–”and my belief that we all can rise above race. Today, even in the wake of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, I have yet to recover that belief.

Maybe I was lucky. A few years ago, a friend of mine went through the same thing before he was handcuffed and thrown onto the hood of his BMW.

Arguably, in the almost 14 years since that fall day in 1995, the problem of racial profiling has expanded. DWB can now also refer to “Driving While Brown” as anti-immigrant sentiment continues to permeate throughout the nation, including parts of suburban Chicago.

In this issue’s cover story, “Driving While Latino,” Fernando Dí­az examines the disparity for Latinos in several suburban municipalities between their share of traffic stops and their share of the driving-age population. Overall, the combined number of white, black, Latino and Asian drivers are stopped in proportions similar to their share of the combined driving-age population for the more than 240 law-enforcement agencies examined in the six-county region. So the existence of double-digit disparities in more than 40 of those municipalities, as Dí­az points out, is noteworthy.

If you believe that those traffic stops are a necessary cost of providing high-quality police service in areas embattled by crime, perhaps you’ve never truly been violated as the subject of such a traffic stop. If law-enforcement officials believe that those traffic stops are an invaluable investigative tool and a mere inconvenience to the thousands of innocent civilians who must endure them, they’re wrong.

Those traffic stops are far more than just an inconvenience. Racial profiling is a violation, a psychological rape. No drug bust or immigration enforcement is worth exposing innocent people to such an ugly and reprehensible crime.

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