In the Spotlight

News & Features

Driving While Black
By Brandt Williams
Minnesota Public Radio
November 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

An overview | Accountability in the justice system | American Indians and the rural justice system | The new disparities | Driving while black

Last year, both Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments started recording the race of people pulled over by their police officers. In both cities, African-Americans were stopped at rates much higher than their presence in the city. Many African-Americans say the data shows what they've suspected all along. They say police target African Americans because of their skin color. Some call this practice racial profiling or driving while black. Minnesota Public Radio's Brandt Williams conducted a rolling roundtable discussion on the subject.

Ed Nunn talks about his experience when he was stopped by police in Illinois. Listen.
(MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)

We're four black men in a rented mini-van driving around Minneapolis and St. Paul.

D. Eric Harmon teaches English at a local community college. He has also been a freelance reporter for local black newspapers.

Ed Nunn is a salesman for a large pharmaceutical company. His wife will be having their second daughter any day now.

The Rev. Devin Miller is a social activist in St. Paul. He works with black youth and police officers on a daily basis.

We're driving while black, and we're talking about what that means.

All the men say they've experienced racial profiling in one form or another.

We drive down a busy street in North Minneapolis and Eric remembers an experience he had here a few years ago. "I saw a cop come onto Emerson and I looked in my rear-view mirror, saw it was a police officer, I checked my speedometer immediately, I was doing 30. Ok, I'm cool. My license is fine, I don't have any warrants. Insurance is cool, everything is hunky dory. I shouldn't have any problems. Well they got behind me. You know, that close, tailgating, following you. You know you feel like they're scanning you. You're like 'Oh, Lord, what are they trying to find out?' And she pulled me over, it was a female officer," he recalls.

Eric says he thinks this was an example of racial profiling. He says when he drives he always makes sure his blinkers, headlights and taillights are working. He says he doesn't want to give police officers an excuse for pulling him over.

"You are raising millions upon billions of dollars for folks who lost their families and things like that. What did you do for family when we lost folks during the '60s when you were sicking dogs on us and water on us when we were trying to sit at a lunch counter?"

- Devin Miller

This time the officer said he was speeding. Ed Nunn says he's experienced similar situations. He says while living in Georgia he was once pulled over for driving too close to the curb. He moved to the Twin Cities from Illinois a few months ago. He says he's been pulled over once for speeding since he moved here. He says he doesn't think it was racially motivated.

But Ed says a couple of times police have followed him for brief periods.

Ed drives an $80,000 Mercedes Benz. So I ask him why anyone should care that he gets closely scrutinized by police.

"Because it doesn't matter," he said. "I've worked hard to get to a point where I'm at now. And that's why I don't deserve that kind of treatment. I work hard. Anyone who works hard - whether they are rich, poor, whatever - it's irrelevant no matter what you're doing. As long as you're not breaking the law, you shouldn't be subjected to that kind of harrassment."

"They should also be concerned because it's not right," Harmon adds. "And when something's not right, then everybody should say, 'Well, that's not right.' I don't want to be pulled over for anything other than the fact that I might be committing a crime."

The three men say their experiences are shared by other African-Americans around the country. They say white America doesn't see the side of law enforcement they see.

"When you bring this sort of thing up to white America, they say 'you're tripping,' or 'you're paranoid' or 'you're whining' or 'you're making excuses,'" Harmon says.

Miller says there's a large perception gap between black and white Americans that goes beyond the subject of racial profiling. He says black and white Americans have generally responded differently to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"This is not popular, (but) I'm sick of it. Yes, 5,000-plus people died. I'm sorry, but you are raising millions upon billions of dollars for folks who lost their families and things like that. What did you do for family when we lost folks during the '60s, when you were sicking dogs on us and water on us when we were trying to sit at a lunch counter?" Miller said.

Left to right: Devin Miller, Ed Nunn and D. Eric Harmon. Hear additional comments with Devin Miller talking about his experience while shopping (Listen) and Eric Harmon discussing an incident in North Minneapolis (Listen).
(MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)

Ed and Eric also say they've been unmoved by all the flag waving that goes on these days. However Ed says regardless of America's problems with race, African-Americans should jump on the unity bandwagon.

Eric says the calls for unity are hypocritical. "This is what I mean by 'that's crazy,'" he says. "This country has never been united. You've got to go back to history. When the country started, it was united behind making sure we were three-fifths of a human being according to the Constitution."

The minivan creeps along with the traffic on University Avenue in St. Paul. Eric and Ed's debate grows more spirited.

"If you look at the media, if you look at what they report on, this is still seen as a white country and a white person's problem in terms of it," Eric says. "When they say U.S. - the United States - they're talking about them. It's called 'war' for them not us. Oh yeah, they'll sprinkle a black person or a Hispanic or an Asian in every once in awhile."

"If something happens to them, isn't it going to happen to us?" responds Ed.

There is a saying in the black community: When America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia.

The guys in the van say they fear that America's war on terrorism could have the same negative impact on African-Americans as the war on drugs.

"So it's not going to be driving-while-black, it's going to be driving while black, brown, fair complexioned," says Devin Miller. "If you hang with people of Muslim descent, you're a target. If you have friends that are from Arab countries, you better be careful. Everyone's going to be on a heightened state of paranoia, because now you don't know who you can have as friends. You don't know if your friend, whose name is Abdul, you don't know if he's connected. And if he's connected, who he's connected to." "Brothers who got down in the '60s and changed their names, they'll probably change their names back to Mark," Eric says.

Earlier in the discussion, Ed said African-Americans use humor to cope with racism. He said humor helps the pain roll off like water rolls off a duck's behind.

Being perceived as a thief by store security isn't funny.

But Ed got a laugh when he described how he tries to avoid being stereotyped when he goes shopping. "When I go shopping now, I pull my $80,000 car up in front. I step out. I want to be so clean, they might think this brother's overspending. He's spending money; he's not going to steal anything. He's going to spend some money. Because, you're right, I don't want anybody looking over their shoulder, over my shoulder trying to figure out if I'm stealing something," he says.

The guys laugh because they can relate, maybe not with the expensive car. But they say that doesn't matter. They say it doesn't matter what kind of job you have or what kind of clothes you wear. They say all African Americans are potential targets for racial profiling.

And they don't know when that will change.