Urban Wire White privilege is a routine traffic stop
Elaine Waxman
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This post is part of a series from Urban scholars reflecting on recent events involving police use of force and shootings of police. The posts represent the individual thoughts and perspectives of their authors.

This is a story about a routine traffic stop—one that was routine because of the color of my skin.

Several years ago, I was stopped for rolling through a stop sign on an icy road in my Chicago neighborhood. As the white female officer approached my side of the car, I cracked the car door open slightly to explain that I could not roll down my window because it was frozen shut. The officer drew her gun and began screaming at me to get back in the car, although I had not made any attempt to leave it. Meanwhile, my terrified young daughter looked on from her car seat behind me. Although the data on police and public encounters is incomplete and not always clear, several studies indicate that what happened next happened because I am white, not a person of color. 

Although I am a researcher who spends a fair amount of time thinking about the structural barriers that drive inequality, in truth, I rarely think about these things when going about my daily life. But then I watched the gut-wrenching video that Diamond Reynolds made after a police officer fatally shot her fiancé Philando Castile during a traffic stop, which her 4-year-old daughter witnessed from the backseat of their car. I was immediately transported back to the traffic stop I experienced in Chicago, with my young daughter in the back seat of the car—but my story ended very differently.

I was not ticketed, let alone arrested. The gun went back in the holster, and the officer listened to my explanation for cracking the car door open. She even apologized for her disproportionate response, explaining that she was on edge because someone had come at her with a baseball bat earlier that day. And she tolerated my angry response, as I really let her have it, pointing out in no uncertain terms that she had unnecessarily traumatized my daughter without any provocation and probably affected her perception of police officers for years to come.

Unfortunately, if I was a person of color, and especially if I was one of my black male neighbors, research strongly suggests a significant risk that this story would have turned out differently. In all likelihood, being stopped for a traffic violation would have been a more common occurrence in the first place, and often for much lesser offenses. Some research shows that racial disparities emerge from daytime traffic stops. At night, the rates of white and black drivers being stopped converge, presumably when it is not possible for police to see the race of the driver from a distance (my traffic stop happened at dusk).

Based on an analysis of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2011 Police-Public Contact Survey, it is more likely that I would have been ticketed and searched had I been a person of color. The odds are that my mouthiness could have led to an arrest for more serious offenses, such as disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, or threatening a police officer, as was the case in the arrest of Sandra Bland. My daughter would not have been as likely to witness the de-escalation of an initially tense situation, nor learned that the police officer had earlier experienced an assault—something that happened to more than 48,000 officers while performing their duties in 2014.

And statistics suggest that when the officer perceived a threat when I cracked open the car door, the encounter was more likely to involve some use of force. In a recent study, Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. examined select datasets from New York City, the Police-Public Contact Survey, and a few other cities and counties in the United States. He reports that blacks and Hispanics were 50 percent more likely to experience acts of nonlethal force. In an analysis of New York City data for blacks and whites in similar situations, the disparity in experiences included being pushed to the ground (18 percent more likely if black), having a weapon pointed at them (24 percent more likely), and having pepper spray or a baton used on them (25 percent more likely). Fryer notes that “adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities.”

Recent evidence about racial bias in police shootings, however, is mixed. Other analyses in the Fryer report concluded that blacks were not more likely to experience lethal force than whites. However, Fryer has stated that these findings should be interpreted with great caution because of significant challenges with data about police use of lethal force. And other research suggests that racial disparities do extend to lethal force, and that these trends cannot be explained as a response to variation in local-level crime rates.

The video of Reynolds coming apart in the backseat of the police car as her 4-year-old daughter tried to comfort her broke another piece of my heart that day. And it made me wear my white privilege a little less lightly. Perhaps “privilege” seems an awkward word for those lucky enough to experience only routine police encounters. But regrettably, it is indeed a privilege that, years later, I can tell this version of the story.

Research Areas Race and equity Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Inequality and mobility Racial disparities in criminal justice Structural racism
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center