Sophia A. Nelson
Here’s a troubling fact: Black and Latino drivers are stopped more often than white drivers, based on less evidence of wrongdoing.
According to a 2019 Stanford University Study, titled the “Stanford Open Policing Project” researchers compiled the most comprehensive evidence regarding racial disparities in traffic stops ever collected. The data points to consistent racial profiling in how police decide to stop and search white versus minority drivers.
If the Stanford findings aren’t troubling enough, the past few days in America have once again put a spotlight on how black and brown people are treated badly at traffic stops. The viral video showing a black and Latino United States Amy Lt. being yelled at, disrespected, commanded and pepper sprayed by police in Windsor Virginia, as they pointed loaded guns at him, is in a word: despicable. Worse, he was stopped under suspect circumstances (allegedly he did not have proper tags, when in fact he had temporary tags for a new car.)
Conjuring up Jim Crow history
As a proud Virginian myself, I felt both anger and dismay as to what I watched as the black soldier, Caron Nazario, was pulled over with guns drawn down on him, as he was being screamed at to “obey” and when he asked what was happening, he was told that he was about to “ride the white lightening” by peace officers here in the Commonwealth.
The “white lightening” phrase jarred me to my very soul. Because it conjures up the worst of the Jim Crow south and white men hunting black men in the dark or walking them slowly down the hallways of death row to sit in the electric chair (aka “white lightening”) as seen in the movie, “The Green Mile”. But it isn’t really that surprising when you look at the history of policing in the deep south and throughout America.
We all know about the slave patrols that started in America in the deep south, in places like Virginia (the wealthiest of the original 13 colonies). While policing in America certainly has also has its roots in English constables, policing in southern slave-holding states was created for vastly different reasons dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These “patrols” were used to track runaway slaves like Harriett Tubman and later to enforce Jim Crow laws in the late 1880s through the 1960s.
According to Professor Michael Robinson of the University of Georgia, who is a scholar in the area of social work and colonial slavery, the first deaths in America of Black men at the hands of law enforcement “can be traced back as early as 1619 when the first slave ship, a Dutch Man-of-War vessel landed in Point Comfort, Virginia.”
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If the police actions videotaped in Virginia, last December against Lt. Nazario were not bad enough, stunningly Minneapolis police are back in the spotlight (no, not for George Floyd) for the so-called “accidental” death of Duante Wright, a 20-year-old black man, at the hands of a female veteran police-officer who allegedly discharged her gun instead of her taser. Smith was stopped for an obstructive “air freshener” and was found to have warrants for his arrest. The rest, caught on police cams, shows Wright trying to get back into his car, the officer fires her weapon, and yells “Sh*t. I shot him” as Wright drives off and dies in his car.
Implicit bias in police officers
Tragically Wright is not alive to tell his story as is Lt. Nazario, who will most certainly have his day in both the courts of public opinion and law. Stanford Professor Jennifer Eberhardt calls it “implicit bias” or “unconscious bias” which is a big contributing factor to why police both pull their weapons more on black citizens, and handcuff them more. And most disturbing of all, fire upon them more. Returning for a moment again to the Stanford Open Policing Project, it examined almost 100 million traffic stops conducted from 2011 to 2017 across 21 state patrol agencies. The results show that police stopped and searched black and Latino drivers based on less evidence than used in stopping white drivers, who are searched less often but are more likely to be found with illegal items.
Here is the bottom line: to all of us who have black fathers, brothers, sons, and nephews this national moment we continue to find ourselves in right now is terrifying. It seems as if we have slipped back past the bounds of time, and that black men are being hunted once again. I remember 20 years ago when my own brother was a new officer stationed in Virginia Beach, Fort Story as the XO and was pulled over one night coming home from work. He experienced nothing like Lt. Nazario, but he experienced something that shook him to his core. I still remember the shaking of his voice when he called me to ask me if his rights had been violated.
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When I reflect on the video of Army Officer Nazario, I think of the story, my very white, male pastor shared with us one Sunday of his being stopped by the police in North Carolina for speeding. He shared how he argued with the officer. Told him he would fight the ticket. His wife begging him to be quiet. And with his family in tow, drove off mad. Every black person in our church that Sunday, in our wealthy northern Virginia suburb was upset. I was so upset, I said something to him and to his wife. He apologized and was horrified by his lack of awareness of how that story would impact his black male parishioners acutely. It simply never occurred to him to not share his encounter with how he gave that officer a piece of his mind.
It was a teachable moment for him and all the white men and women in our church. But for us, as black men and women, and teenage boys who had been given “the talk” — it was yet more unsettling proof that white citizens can be stopped, argue, resist arrest, yell, have a gun lawfully in the car or assert their rights, and we can do none of that and, yet still end up dead.
Sophia A. Nelson is an adjunct professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia and the author of “E Pluribus ONE: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America.” Follow her on Twitter: @IAmSophiaNelson