Driving While Black

What do college calculus and systemic racism have in common? My text thread recently triggered flashbacks to polynomials, factoring, formulas, and quadratic equations.

I never excelled at Math. I’m a woman of words NOT numbers. In college calculus, I was particularly challenged by word problems. I had a hard time sifting through the information to filter out WHAT was relevant and WHICH equation would solve the problem.

A math proficient friend threw me a life line and coached me to identify key words to help determine which formula to employ. I didn’t develop an affinity for advanced math, but it helped me pass the class!

This week my phone exploded with messages from friends expressing a spectrum of emotions: anger, grief, indignation, confusion.

Black mothers, Black fathers, Black activists sharing exhaustion, fatigue, dismay, and utter weariness with finding the RIGHT formula to solve the complex equation that is America's systemic racism.

What key words must we identify to solve the problem of being Black in America, raising Black children, STRIVING to sort out the applicable variables for keeping them alive in a world that sees their skin as a weapon....their Black body as a threat.

We have checklists for driving while Black:

-Don’t speed.

-Hands 10 and 2 on the wheel

-Dial a relative and keep the line open

-No sudden moves

-Modulate your tone

-Say: Yes Sir, No Sir

-ANNOUNCE all actions

-Don’t argue

-Don’t get emotional

Always remember the ULTIMATE goal of solving for X in a police encounter is to COME HOME ALIVE.

We practice.

We hold drills.

We rehearse WHAT to say and HOW to say it.

We shatter the innocence of our youth with the inconvenient truth that driving while Black in America has the potential to be fatal. Just existing while Black--in the wrong place, at the wrong time—can be fatal.

My husband, youngest daughter, and I had an unnerving encounter with police last October in North Carolina--my husband’s home state.

Aside from the standard request for license and registration, we were asked:

Where we were going?

Where we were coming from?

Why we were here?

How long we were staying?

Whose car we were driving?

At the start of our trip, our daughter agreed to co-pilot and monitor changes in speed limit that can happen on short notice when embarking on an extended road trip.

We had discussed the importance of being DILIGENT to avoid police encounters, in the racially polarized pre-election atmosphere, in the middle of a pandemic--and yet, here we were!

I observed my husband's nervousness from the back seat--gasping inwardly as he began to say things that were NOT true.

To be clear—he WAS NOT lying. He was nervous, unsettled--and rightly so.

I calmly interjected at certain points to correct him:

"Honey, yes we DO have our most current insurance card. I can pull it up on my phone.”

I fought to maintain my calm, and modulate my tone when I did speak. It was clear that what I was observing in my husband was a stress response.

The officer noticed and capitalized on his nervousness.

He STARTED by saying we were slightly over the speed limit, calling our attention to the fact that the limit had shifted from 40 to 35 on the current stretch of road.

He ENDED by ticketing us for going 20 miles over the speed limit.

This was a lie, and not even a good one!

We were on a two lane country road. With the traffic volume, there’s no way we could’ve been 20 miles over the speed limit. Traffic flow did NOT allow for that.

But ANY notion I had to object was silenced by the film that began to play on the screen of my mind: scenes of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and a host of other Black motorists for whom a routine traffic stop proved fatal.

We drove away in silence.

None of us speaking for at least an hour—-the tension in the car so thick it was palpable.

A few hours later, we discussed what transpired.

Knowing we would be traveling a few more days and could be stopped again, we discussed what to do differently in the event of a repeat stop.

And here is why I’m sharing this recollection.

My husband is a professional adult who often teaches training classes on matters of de-escalation and conflict management.

We were traveling in broad daylight,

in our car,

in my husband’s home state,

AFTER rehearsing what to do in a situation like this.

And yet—he was still shaken and unnerved.

We all were!

We paid a $250 ticket for a violation we know we did NOT commit and chocked it up to the cost of coming out of the encounter alive.

All of which begs the question: If we have to rehearse for potential conflict, then stay still, quiet, and PERFECTLY compliant to exit law enforcement encounters unscathed, are we experiencing liberty and justice for all?

Answer not needed. It’s a rhetorical question.


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