Driving While White
To the Editor:
I have been thinking a lot about racial disparities in this summer of Black Lives Matter protests. It is also true that I have been thinking about racial disparities and social justice my entire adult life, beginning with my first understanding about race and racism as a teenager, and I was a very optimistic singer of “We Shall Overcome” in the 60s. I don’t know if the current movement of civil unrest will lead to significant systemic changes in the fabric of U.S.society, but it seems to me that there are more white people today willing to think about race and racism than there have been in many decades.
In thinking about these disparities from a personal perspective I am remembering about a time in the early 70s when I was stopped by the police while I was driving from downtown Los Angeles to Terminal Island, California, where I was living at that time. I was a fairly new resident in California and not yet familiar with the massive freeway system. Terminal Island was a quirky address; not very many people even knew of its existence, never mind how to get there, so asking for driving directions if I got lost was not really an option. I remember that I did know one way of navigating the various highways that would get me to the freeway I knew, a route that necessitated my making a left turn where a no left turn sign was prominently posted. I wasn’t sure how I would get home if I didn’t make that left turn. It might be hard to imagine this situation today, given GPS information that exists everywhere, but I did not even have a good road map with me in the car, and smart phones had not yet been invented.
My two oldest children were in the back seat strapped into their car seats, both under two. We had been at a two year old’s birthday party, both kids were long past their usual nap time, and they were fussy and cranky on the car trip home. I am sure I must have tried singing to them to get them to settle, but that works best in fairy tales where children magically fall into a dreamy sleep. Shortly before we arrived at the place where I had to make the illegal left turn, both children had just nodded sleepily and had fallen asleep. I was relieved that the rest of the hour long trip would not be miserable for them or for me. Suddenly from behind a bridge a police car came, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, and a voice from a bull horn screaming, “PULL OVER!” I quickly pulled the car off the road and the officer pulled his car behind mine. As the officer walked toward my car I rolled down my window as wide as it could go, leaned out as far as I could lean, and hiss-whispered in a menacing voice, “Quiet! I just got these children to sleep!” The officer looked at me, a little surprised, then looked at the still sleeping children and backed away from the car, saying, “Oh, sorry.” He must have had second thoughts then, and he added, whispering, did I know that the left turn I had just made was illegal? I waved back to him to say, yes, thanks, and off I drove.
This is the ultimate white privilege story. It never crossed my mind that day that I might be in any danger from the law. I don’t remember feeling any concern that my actions in asking the police officer to not do his job might have been unreasonable or inappropriate. Did I wonder if it was okay for me to expect cooperation or collusion from a police officer? No, that didn’t cross my mind. The concept that I would be given the benefit of the doubt was so pervasive it was rarely, if ever, articulated. All people deserve the kind of policing response I received that day; only some people get it. The young man who was the officer on duty in this incident might have seen me as a damsel in distress and maybe even a little crazed, a woman with two very young children, possibly barely coping. He might have been a father. Maybe he recognized in me his mother, sister, wife or niece. I have thought about this incident many times since that day: both the ultimate chutzpah of my actions and the unfairness of my white advantage. To be clear, I deserved to be ticketed for making an illegal left turn, and I would not have objected to getting a ticket, but I know I would have been furious if that officer had awakened my sleeping children.
Ellen Hofheimer Bettmann