Driving While White: Reflections On Bias And Rights

If I were a black man, I’d be dead.
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If I were a black man, I’d be dead.

That’s what I thought, at least, after the traffic stop.

I’d been pulled over for speeding in my leafy, quiet, overwhelmingly-white suburb and — shockingly ignorant white lady that I was —started to get out of the car to apologize.

“Stay in the car!” the police officer yelled. I shut the door and waited, flooded with embarrassment — of course you’re supposed to stay put. What was I thinking? The officer walked up to the window, pretty flustered himself. He calmed down, though, when he saw me and my two toddlers, strapped in their car seats in the back. He explained how far over the limit I’d been driving, and I expressed regret.

“Just take it slower, now, ma’am,” he said, and sent me — without a ticket— on my way. I couldn’t stop thinking, though, about the rush of emotion, his and mine, in that encounter, and how it was stopped, soothed, by something I believe was operating at a level far below that of reason: a bond of whiteness.

You are like me, I am like you. We are safe. White.

That night I got on the internet and became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The name sounds old-fashioned. But in America color, or its lack, can still be a matter of life or death.

I thought about it again some time later, when exhausted and scatterbrained from working-full time while being a mother of two, I had forgotten to reregister my car. I was a new resident in the state I was living in, and I suppose someone had told me I needed to register it annually there, but since that isn’t how it worked in the state I’d grown up in, the fact had slipped my mind. This time, it was a young woman cop who pulled me over, and pointed out that my registration was six months out of date.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Please write me a ticket, and I’ll pay it.”

She seemed uncomfortable as she looked at me: a woman, white like her, old enough to be her mother, with two kids in the back seat.

“Actually, ma’am, it’s a felony,” she informed me. “I think you should just go home now and not drive it until you reregister.” Which, after thanking her warmly, I did.

These experiences, I am sure, are far from unique. They are just two small examples of how American society cuts white people slack for their errors, but offers no such leniency and sometimes even delivers completely out-of-proportion, irrational punishment to black or brown people who do the same things.

“American society cuts white people slack for their errors, but offers no such leniency to black or brown people who do the same things.”

Some recent research compiled at Stanford University gives a name to this phenomenon: leniency bias. In one study, for example, partners at law firms overlooked technical errors in a legal brief they believed was written by a white male associate, but noticed many more of the errors if they were told a black male had written the same document. I’ve observed the same thing anecdotally in many business settings: a carelessly-composed email or document from a white male executive is likely to be considered the result of how busy and pressured and important he is, while the same thing from a woman or person of color is more often read as a sign of incompetence.

A similar kind of pro-white bias, I think, is also at work in aspects of our criminal justice system. I grew up in a white working-class community, many of whose members abused drugs and alcohol. It was common for people I knew to face arrest for assault, drug possession or driving while intoxicated, to lose their licenses and to spend periods on probation. But rarely did they go to jail, and I know many who, after sobering up, found steady, well-paying work and built good livelihoods for themselves and their families. I am sure that in a community of color, the consequences of this same behavior would have been much, much worse.

“We should talk about 'pro-white bias' instead of 'white privilege' -- the things we are talking about are things that that everyone should have.”

Pro-white bias operates, I believe, below the level of conscious intent. Moreover, the white people who benefit from it don’t feel like beneficiaries. The suicidal white alcoholic who winds up losing his license is genuinely suffering, and usually isn’t able to consider, “If I were black, I’d be in jail for what I did.” That’s why discussions of “white privilege” can often seem alienating to white people who don’t, in their own lives, feel “privileged.”

Another reason I wish we could talk about “pro-white bias” instead of “white privilege” is that the things we are talking about are things that that everyone should have. Like consequences for drug use that help you get clean without ruining the rest of your life. Or being able to drive, and make driving mistakes, without getting killed by a cop.

These things aren’t privileges: They’re human rights. The terrible fact-on-the-ground of America is that people of color have fewer human rights than white people do.

That’s the outrage we should name, and that should mobilize us all.

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