The Problem With Broken Taillights

red and white taillight of...
red and white taillight of...

As I write, I'm drinking lukewarm coffee and watching daytime television. Confined to the waiting room of a local auto shop, I'm waiting to have a taillight fixed.

The broken taillight had slipped my mind for weeks -- maybe even months -- steadily creeping down my to-do list in favor of more pressing tasks. But my memory was jogged late last Tuesday night after reading an article in the New York Times: "The shooting unfolded after Officer Slager stopped the driver of a Mercedes-Benz with a broken taillight."

Before it was the horrifying scene captured on cell phone and now cycling in my mind, the shooting of Walter Scott began with a broken taillight.

Maybe the errand of replacing the taillight had slipped Scott's mind. Maybe the task had yet to make it on a to-do list, given he purchased the car only three days earlier. Regardless, as I recalled my own procrastinated errand, I was haunted by the question of why Walter Scott's experience with a broken taillight was so tragically different than mine. Why have I driven for weeks -- maybe even months- - as an offending motorist never to be stopped, while he was stopped within days, inaugurating the events leading to his death?

A precise comparison between our experiences is impossible given the many variables. He drove in North Charleston, SC, and I drive in Greensboro, NC. He drove a Benz, while I drive a Chevy. I suspect his daily route was longer than my easy 3-4 minute commute. Different people. Different ages. Different driving records. There are many differences that prevent a simple side-by-side. Of course, one point of difference haunts me the most.

People of color in our country, and black men particularly, hear the phrase "broken taillight" very differently than I do. For me, it's as simple as an errand on a to-do list - a pesky task that costs $18 and half-an-hour of already scarce time. For others, a broken taillight is laden with fear, caution, and experiences of abuse of power and tragic loss.

Officers are within their rights to stop motorists for various equipment violations. However, many civil rights leaders argue that some such traffic stops amount to racial profiling, as minor traffic violations become occasion to search vehicles for other illegal activity.

Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president of Charleston's NAACP branch, alleged as much in the wake of Scott's shooting:

"There have been lingering concerns for years about racial profiling [in North Charleston]...Things like broken tail lamps or license plates or mirrors not there. People have been intercepted because they happen to be driving nice cars. Things like not coming to a full stop versus a rolling stop at stop signs. Bizarre stuff like that."

A Washington Post study from Ferguson, MO last summer underscores Darby's point, finding that in 2013 black motorists were stopped for equipment deficiencies at nearly six times the rate of white drivers.

A broken taillight can also be a life-altering offense for some brown-skinned motorists. Among immigrants, fear persists that a minor traffic violation could lead to deportation and the splintering of family. "Woe to the one who drives with a broken taillight," goes the truism in Latino communities, where routine stops can lead to checks on immigration status. I recall a young woman who spoke just last month at my church, First Baptist Church of Greensboro, as part of a panel on immigration. Brought to the United States from Mexico at a young age, she described how she never knew she was an undocumented immigrant until she was 16. For years she drove without a license, before the inauguration of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) allowed her to receive a license last year. She proudly held it up to our audience: "Now I look for the checkpoints," she said. But before, she drove in fear. "I know people who were deported -- separated from their families -- after being stopped," she said, "for something as simple as a broken taillight."

Not only can such traffic stops foster fear and suspicion, violations lead to fines and court costs that can create meaningful indebtedness problems for poor offenders that are difficult to overcome, and can even lead to imprisonment. Perhaps that's one reason that attorney Mark Geragos said last week on CNN that his father, a longtime LA prosecutor, used to say "there are more guys in state prison for broken taillights than any other offense."

Meanwhile, I swipe my credit card and cross "replace taillight" off my list, but not without the knowledge that at the least, there are two different experiences of driving with "defective equipment" in this country. At the most, there are two different standards of justice.

I do not mean to suggest that Walter Scott was killed over a broken taillight, just as I cannot claim to know that, if I were a black man, I would have already been stopped in the months that I've been driving with my equipment violation.

Still, if my experience of a burned out bulb is so drastically different than that of so many men and women of color in this country, maybe -- just maybe -- my taillight is not the only thing broken.