When the sickening footage emerged last week of police killing Walter Scott, I was at a gym in Montpelier watching cable news. The officer, Michael T. Slager, was not in danger; Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back while fleeing. Slager then lied to dispatchers about what had transpired in the minutes before the shooting. He has been charged with murder.
As the newsreel continued its stomach-churning loop, I glanced at the man riding the exercise bike in front of my treadmill. He also watched—both transfixed and disgusted—and glanced away from time to time to shake his head. I finished my run and headed over to talk to him.
“It’s just disgusting what they did to that poor man,” he said through his grimace. We then talked of other recent headline-grabbing incidents, each expressing dismay over the militarization of police forces and the seeming propensity of many officers to escalate basic traffic stops into life-threatening episodes.
“But I don’t think it has to do with race,” he continued. I know my eyebrows arched involuntarily. He said he thought these terrible incidents happened because of bad police training. He argued that police officers were not following protocol and that the job itself possibly attracts people with underlying violent tendencies. I agreed that these factors do probably play a part in the epidemic. But why are we—as white people—so reluctant to accept that race is part of the equation?
Last summer, while running late for an appointment after a very long drive, I did what many drivers do without giving it much thought: I decelerated, glanced in both directions, and slowly rolled through the stop sign. No cars were coming—except for the state trooper who’d just pulled around a bend in the road. Busted!
He pulled me over, and I stammered that I really, really needed to use the bathroom; could I please relieve myself before we continued with the traffic stop? He agreed, and I hurried away to use the bathroom in a nearby shop. Let me be clear—I ran away from the police officer and my vehicle.
Now, I am white, female, and 98 pounds wet. I also look solidly middle class. The officer allowed me to take care of my basic needs before I presented my license, my registration, or any other proof of who I was or the status of my past record. My bathroom break took longer than anticipated because I needed to wait my turn, but the trooper did not come in after me. He waited by my vehicle for my return.
I have blocked out the exact size of the fine; it was substantial. But here’s the thing: I paid it, and it did not send me into a death spiral of unpaid fines and license revocation. NPR and the Washington Post have both documented how the poor disproportionately lose their drivers licenses because of unpaid tickets for relatively petty violations. Additional fees and surcharges –often many times the cost of the original ticket–wallop poor citizens. And make no mistake: African Americans and Latinos in this country have rates of poverty more than double that of white Americans.
I have the unearned benefits of being white, relatively wealthy, and a woman. Male drivers are more likely to be stopped by police and much more likely to be searched. Women are less likely than men to receive citations for identical violations. And black drivers are 3 times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop.
It does have to do with race. And gender. And poverty. What does it say about us that we can’t see this?