Driving While Black: WNBA Star’s Traffic Stop Fits a Pattern
On Sunday afternoon, Seimone Augustus helped lead the Minnesota Lynx to their second straight WNBA Western Conference title. That, however, didn’t keep her from being pulled over Monday by police in Roseville, Minnesota.
Of course, no degree of fame should put someone above the law, but the violation — having an air freshener hanging from her rear view mirror — and comments by the officer who pulled her over fit an old and dispiriting pattern.
Augustus tweeted about the stop, saying the officer had stopped her “for an air [freshener] hanging in my window, but then went on talking about theft at the mall.”
According to Augustus, the officer, Won Chau, also commented on her vehicle’s out-of-state license plates.
The event was minor in the grand scheme of things — a star athlete getting a minor traffic ticket; nothing of particular note. It was the unstated background of the incident, however, that drew raised eyebrows.
Augustus is African American.
Racial Disparity Engenders Distrust
Police officers pull over African American and Hispanic motorists far more often than white drivers. From Portland, Ore. to†Cincinnati to†North Carolina, studies have shown that drivers of color are more than twice as likely to be pulled over. In cities without major vehicle traffic, like New York City, the problem remains — †in 2011, more than 84 percent of people detained under New York City’s “stop and frisk” program were African American or Hispanic.
It’s easy to point to incarceration statistics and argue that this is due to people of color being more likely to commit crime — but of course, you’re more likely to be arrested for a crime if you’re stopped in the first place.
Not only are African American drivers far more likely to be stopped, but they’re three times more likely to be searched after a traffic stop.†If police find a violation, be it petty or serious, you’re more likely to be prosecuted. And if you’re convicted? Your sentence is typically harsher.
Statistics don’t lie — police are far more vigilant at looking for screw-ups among the African American and Hispanic communities than they are among white people.
Racial profiling causes people in the African American and Hispanic communities to distrust police. Why wouldn’t it? People react to the racial disparity in policing by recognizing that police are not dispensing justice even-handedly. Even if a particular cop is totally fair and unbiased, he or she is working with cops who clearly are not.
The Murky Citation
There is no guarantee, of course, that Officer Chau pulled Augustus over because she was African American. She was technically violating the law, after all — Minnesota does ban the hanging of anything off your rear-view mirror. “An obstruction, such as an air freshener hanging from a carís rear view mirror can obstruct the driverís view of merging traffic or a pedestrian crossing at an intersection,” said Roseville police in a statement. They denied, of course, that race had anything to do with Augustus’ detention.
It’s impossible to prove, and impossible to know. That works against everyone, though. We can’t know that Chau would have let Lindsay Whalen go if she was driving a car with an air freshener. And certainly, in this case, the consequences for Augustus were minor. She was pulled over and given a minor citation; she’ll pay a fine and it will be done with. She hasn’t been inconvenienced much.
Then again, any individual African American in New York City isn’t inconvenienced much by stop-and-frisk. Any given African American motorist isn’t inconvenienced much if police check their car for weapons. Police can, and do, justify their stops by pointing to the law, and they are right.
But the law is clearly not enforced evenly. It falls disproportionately on African Americans and Hispanics. The little inconveniences add up quickly.
Most white Americans do not expect to be stopped by police for a broken tail light or excessively-tinted windows. It happens, but not very often. We expect that we’ll be able to live our lives free of police interference, even in those times when we bend the law by driving too fast, or littering, or using a small amount of an illegal drug.
We have that luxury — but it is not a luxury shared by all. Augustus’ traffic stop, on its own, wasn’t a big deal. But in the context of our racist justice system, it was enormous.
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