What I Didn't Know About Driving While Black

It's not a punchline; it's a disgusting national shame.

Driving While Black
Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post/ Getty Images

Two weeks ago, I watched the entire Philando Castile Facebook video. It nearly undid me. Here was a guy who’d done nothing wrong other than head out on his evening route with a broken taillight, and he ended up bleeding out in the front seat of his car, his seat belt still on, while his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter sat by and watched. And recorded. While he died.

A few days later, Donald Trump referred to Castile and Alton Sterling from South Carolina as “motorists,” which was wrong, because Sterling’s shooting didn’t involve a car. But Castile actually was a motorist. He was just trying to survive the traffic wars like the rest of us, but with a huge, unstated difference: As a black man, he had a lot more to worry about in a car than I ever will.

The danger of “Driving While Black” is nothing new. Jay-Z rapped about it in 99 Problems: "Well you was doing fifty five in a fifty four / License and registration and step out of the car." A 2007 sketch on The Chris Rock Show talked about “how not to get your ass kicked by the police” at a traffic stop. Advice included: “if you’re listening to loud rap music, turn that shit off,” and “if you have to give a friend a ride, get a white friend—a white friend can be the difference between a ticket and a bullet in your ass.”

But suddenly, what had been entertaining and grimly funny now seemed visceral. Philando Castile, a fellow motorist, had died for nothing more than the non-crime of Driving While Black. I felt disgusted, cracked open, and very sad. Something had changed in my brain.

Overwhelmed by white liberal guilt, I called one of my seven black friends, fellow Jeopardy! champion and University Of Texas education professor Richard Reddick, on a Sunday afternoon. Rich informed me that he was on the couch recovering from a BBQ coma, but said he could talk through the haze. I poured my heart out, telling him how profoundly I’d been moved by Castile’s death.

“It’s great that you’re aware now,” he said. “I just think it’s funny because this is something we’ve been dealing with for our whole lives.”

While Rich was quick to say that he’d had plenty of good experiences with the police, including one who’d helped him push his car up a hill after a breakdown, he’s still wary. Before he drives, he always runs through a checklist: He tells his children to behave so they don’t distract him, he makes sure he’s wearing his seltbelt, he puts his insurance card in the visor above his head, and he confirms that his wallet is somewhere he can access it easily. “I don’t ever want to reach for something to have it interpreted aggressively,” he said.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

“There’s no inoculation, there’s no protection when I’m driving,” he said. “The minute I walk out of my classroom, I’m not identifiable as a professor. I’m not wearing tweed or smoking a pipe. I’m just a black guy in a car.”

As we talked, it dawned on me that if a brilliant and devoted family man like Rich Reddick has to drive around afraid of the cops, then every black person does. Driving While Black knows no class boundaries. In fact, getting into a Lexus or a BMW makes black people even more of a target. Chris Rock has made a cottage awareness industry out of posting photos on Instagram of him getting pulled over by cops.

“Guys who are judges, lawyers, say, 'The minute I move out of my office and I’m identifiable as professional person x, that’s when I can have my liberty taken away,'” Dr. Reddick said to me. The automobile, often touted as the avatar of personal freedom, actually serves as a literal vehicle of oppression for African-Americans. Black people are almost heartbreakingly vulnerable to the whims of the law when they get behind the wheel. They can even end up dead, like Philando Castile or Sandra Bland.

A couple days later, I called Mariann Hyland, a lawyer in Oregon who in 2014 co-created an app called Driving While Black, which provides a comprehensive rundown of “best practices” for African-American drivers at a traffic stop. Her guidelines closely mirrored Dr. Reddick’s personal list: Keep an insurance card in the visor. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Tell the officer every move you’re making.

Getting into a car, for a black person, is often tinged with low-lying dread. Black drivers, if they encounter the police, have to behave with almost surgical precision and patience—not easy to do under ideal driving circumstances, and even harder if you’ve been pulled over. “Driving in America seems almost like a right,” Hyland told me. “But we all have to take a test, pay a fee, so there’s an element of state control over the privilege of driving. It’s a privilege that many people take for granted. Black people aren’t allowed the opportunity to take it for granted and are held accountable for certain situations. They have to take extra measures for security during their encounters with officers.”

African-American drivers have enough to worry about without also being mortally afraid of the cops. Shame on us.

Hyland said she’d been fielding a lot of calls since Castile’s death, as her friends poured out their fears and worries. “I spoke with a friend who told me how she’d recently been on a business trip in Texas, and she found herself driving in an isolated rural place,” Hyland said. “The idea of being stopped created a lot of anxiety for her. She couldn’t drive to her job without feeling fear.”

Clearly, the problems of Driving While Black haven’t yet been solved. The Driving While Black app, Hyland said, had seen only 6,000 downloads in the two years since its release. It’s tough sledding when you’re competing with Pokemon Go and Candy Crush, but it’s also a huge injustice that we live in a country where anyone would even have to consider creating an app about Driving While Black. African-American drivers have enough to worry about without also being mortally afraid of the cops. Shame on us.

*****

After I was done talking with him, Rich Reddick sent me an email:

“I was just watching a commercial for Toyota Camry,” he wrote, “and just realized, this is a marketing opportunity for the enterprising car maker. A car that is safe for black drivers!

  • Large center console for storing your wallet for easy access.
  • Roomy push-button compartment to display your insurance and registration without moving your hands from the steering wheel.
  • Cozy memory foam to keep hands in place when cops pull you over!”

He was joking, but it seemed like a decent list. The memory foam steering wheel would have to be part of some sort of upgrade package. It can’t come standard. The other improvements, though, are reasonable enough. A little recognition of the humanity that white and black drivers share would be nice, too. But for now, we can start with a roomy insurance card compartment.