Driving while black

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Driving while black, abbreviated as DWB, is a phrase in American English that refers to the racial profiling of black drivers. The phrase implies that a motorist might be pulled over by a police officer simply because he or she is black, and then questioned, searched, and/or charged with a trivial offense.[1]

"Driving While Black" is word play on the name of an actual crime, driving while intoxicated, commonly referred to as DWI. (Some jurisdictions use the term Driving Under the Influence (DUI); others use Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII); see "Driving Under the Influence" for other variants.)


A survey of people's experiences with law enforcement reported that minorities generally have the same perceptions of justice as the majority but very different experiences.[2]


In July 2009, a black Canadian named Joel Debellefeuille was pulled over (for the fourth time in several days[3]) by Longueuil police because, according to documents, "his Quebecois name did not match his skin tone."[4] He refused to provide identification or car insurance documents when requested by the officer, and was accordingly fined by a municipal court.[5] Debellefeuille filed complaints with the Human Rights Commission and the police, seeking $30,000 in damages.[6] Crown prosecutor Valérie Cohen defending the police claimed that officers were in their rights to check the ownership of the car on a reasonable suspicion: "the officers' actions were comparable to stopping a man for driving a car registered to a woman called 'Claudine'."[7] As of December 2012, his tickets were dismissed and the officers were suspended without pay. The judge wrote that the mentioned rationale for pulling over demonstrated flagrant ignorance of Quebec society.[3] Debellefeuille's provincial human rights complaint could not be pursued because it had been filed too long a time after receiving the initial ticket.[8]

Criticism of the concept[edit]

On October 31, 2007, black conservative Thomas Sowell devoted an editorial column to arguing against the common claim that police officers stop black drivers because of their race.[9]

Contrary to the implicit claim in the phrase "driving while black" that minorities are unfairly targeted by police while driving, a 2012 study found that black drivers speed more often and more severely than white drivers, and concluded that "citizen risk for specific police behavior is partially attributable to differential behavior prior to the encounter."[10]

Plays on the phrase[edit]

Plays on the phrase ("snowclones") include "walking while black" for pedestrian offenses,[11] "learning while black" for students in schools,[12] "shopping while black" for browsing in stores, and "eating while black" for restaurants.[13] Actor Danny Glover held a press conference in 1999 because cabdrivers in New York City weren't stopping for him; this was called "hailing while black". The phenomenon was investigated further on Michael Moore's television series TV Nation.

In 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union convinced the United States Drug Enforcement Administration to repay $7,000 that it had seized from a black businessman in the Omaha, Nebraska airport on the false theory that it was drug money; the ACLU called it "flying while black".[14]

A pain specialist who treats sickle-cell disease patients at Manhattan's Beth Israel Medical Center reported that for many years doctors forced African American sickle-cell sufferers to endure pain because they assumed that blacks would become addicted to medication; Time magazine labeled this "ailing while black."[15][16]

In late 2013 the phrase "seeking help while black" or "asking for help while black" was coined in response to the deaths of Jonathan Farrell and Renisha McBride. In separate incidents, Farrell and McBride, both African-American, were shot and killed after they experienced a motor vehicle accident and went to the nearby home of a white stranger to ask for help.[17]

The phrase is also used with other racial, ethnic and cultural (minority) groups. An example is Flying while Muslim, referring to the scrutiny that Arabs and Muslims face as airline passengers. Variants on $VERBing while female are also encountered.

Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the phrase Running while Arab has come up on social media[18] (although the bombers in question were not Arab, but Chechen) in response to the interrogation of a Saudi student who, allegedly, acted suspiciously in the vicinity of the attacks. Said suspicious behavior consisted of running away from the area of the blast, something many other people did at the time. His house was searched, but he would later be cleared by law enforcement officials.[19]

The similar phrase Driving While Asian (abbreviated as DWA) or Driving While Oriental (DWO) refers to the stereotype of Asians being poor or overly-cautious drivers.

In popular culture[edit]

In a scene of the movie Men In Black II,[20] (released in 2002) Agent J shows an autodriving car to Agent K. The autopiloted car has a driver-shaped airbag that can be deployed from the steering wheel with the press of a button. The fake driver is caucasian, with a black suit, white shirt and black tie. The dialog:

Agent K: Does that come standard?     [pointing to the driver-shaped airbag]
Agent J: Actually it came with a black dude, but he kept getting pulled over.

This phrase was also directly quoted in the movie National Security[21] (released in 2003). Earl (Martin Lawrence) was stating in a police interview that it wasn't the first time he was pulled over for DWB.

Earl: This isn't the first time I was arrested for DWB.
Detective Frank McDuff: DWB?
Earl: Driving While Black.

This phrase was directly quoted in Season 02 Episode 07 of the Starz drama, Power. After being pulled over by the NYPD, Tommy Egan accuses the officers of pulling them over for "Driving while black", even though[clarification needed] they had just moved millions of dollars out of their Front organization.

Will Smith again references DWB in Men in Black 3 when he is pulled over while driving (ironically) a commandeered vehicle as he pursues the villain in the past. The patrolmen are portrayed as clearly biased against blacks while Agent J (Smith) comically explains what occurred while criticizing their attitudes toward blacks and then escapes after "neuralyzing" the officers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harris, D. (1999) "The stories, the statistics, and the law: Why 'Driving While Black' matters", 84 Minnesota Law Review. pp. 265-326. Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  2. ^ Tyler, Tom R. (2002). Trust in the Law. Sage. ISBN 0-87154-889-5. esp. Part IV. Ethnic Group Differences with Experiences with the Law 
  3. ^ a b "Police officers suspended without pay for racial profiling - Montreal - CBC News". Cbc.ca. 2012-12-10. Retrieved 2013-06-10. 
  4. ^ Wyatt, Nelson (July 28, 2010). "Black man says Quebec police stopped him because of his skin colour". The Globe and Mail (Montreal). Retrieved 29 July 2010. 
  5. ^ "New trial ordered in Quebec racial profiling case - Montreal - CBC News". Cbc.ca. 2011-11-17. Retrieved 2013-06-10. 
  6. ^ "Black man with 'Quebecois' name files complaint against Longueuil police". CTV Montreal. July 28, 2010. Retrieved 29 July 2010. 
  7. ^ Driver says he was victim of racial profiling by police, court hears Archived March 15, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "Racial profiling victory for South Shore man". Montreal: CTV News. 2012-09-27. Retrieved 2015-09-16. 
  9. ^ Thomas Sowell (Oct 31, 2007). "‘Driving While Black’". Jewishworldreview.com. Retrieved 2013-06-10. 
  10. ^ Tillyer, Rob; Engel, Robin S. (July 2012). "Racial differences in speeding patterns: Exploring the differential offending hypothesis". Journal of Criminal Justice 40 (4): 285–295. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2012.04.001. 
  11. ^ Mosedale, M. (2007) Critics say a Minneapolis law criminalizes walking while black: What Lurks Beneath?" City Pages. 28(1369). Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  12. ^ Morse, J. (2002) "Learning while black", TIME Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  13. ^ Coolican, P. (2003) "Chief vows to root out profiling by Patrol," Seattle Times. 11/21/2003. Retrieved May 7, 2007
  14. ^ "ACLU of Nebraska Wins "Flying While Black" Case". ACLU. May 2, 2001. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  15. ^ Cloud, J. (2001) "What's Race Got to do With It?", Time magazine. Retrieved 5/17/08.
  16. ^ Washington, J. (2000) U.S. Customs Applies A Double Standard In Two Directions At Once, JINN. Pacific News Service. Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  17. ^ Brittney Cooper (2013-11-12). "Asking for help while black: How it became a capital offense". Salon.com. Retrieved 2013-11-17. 
  18. ^ Ackerman, S. (2013) "When, And Why, to Call a Bombing ‘Terrorism'" Wired. 16/04/2013. Retrieved April 17, 2013
  19. ^ Sison, B. (2013) "Sources: Injured Saudi man not a suspect in Boston attacks" CBS News. 16/04/2013. Retrieved April 17, 2013
  20. ^ Wikiquote:Men in Black II
  21. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0271668/quotes

Further reading[edit]