It's Been Proven: "Driving While Black" is a Real Thing

New reporting and new research shows that racial bias in traffic stops is still a problem with real consequences.

Ten years ago, to address concerns over racial profiling, the San Diego police department began collecting data on race and traffic stops. That policy was among the first in the nation, and played an important part in improving relations between law enforcement and minority communities in the city. But as Liam Dillon and Megan Burks report for the Voice of San Diego, that practice has all but ended, despite growing concern that racial profiling has become a serious problem in the city. Here’s more:

The San Diego Police Department has had a policy to collect race and ethnicity data during traffic stops since 2000, making it one of the first big urban departments to do so, along with San Jose. The department has told officers they needed to gather this information multiple times in the years since.

But the message didn’t stick. A sergeant in the department’s research and analysis division wasn’t aware that a data collection policy still existed when we asked in late October. “We do not keep any demographics on traffic stops,” Sgt. Laura McLean told us in an email.

Either in San Diego or nationwide, racial profiling in traffic stops is a real problem, though it’s important to be clear about the role race plays in these interactions. In a piece for the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody explain the results of their latest research on “driving while black.” When it comes to stops to enforce traffic laws—like speeding, or driving with a broken brake light—being black has no influence. “African Americans,” they write, “are not significantly more likely than whites to be stopped for clear traffic safety law violations.”

The story is completely different for “investigative stops,” or those where officers are looking for evidence of wrongdoing. In those, race makes all the difference:

[A] black man age twenty-five or younger has a 28 percent chance of being stopped for an investigatory reason over the course of a year; a similar young white man has a 12.5 percent chance, and a similar young white woman has only a 7 percent chance. […]

Overall, black drivers are nearly three times more likely than whites to be subjected to investigatory stops.

Shockingly, a black man must reach age 50 before his risk of an investigatory stop drops to that of a 25-year-old white man.

As Dillon and Burks show in San Diego, this racial disparity can spark community distrust of law enforcement, to say nothing of the fact that regular police contact comes with the risk of violence—as with “stop and frisk” in New York City, confrontations are inevitable when you’re confronting large numbers of people on the basis of perceived criminality, and not actual offense.

The main point, however, is that “driving while black” is a real phenomenon that can be observed and measured—another example of the routine racial bias that still pervades American life.