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, questioned, and searched, simply because he or she is black.[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).


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] In 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]

The American Civil Liberties Union reported that in 2014, black drivers received nearly 22 percent of all seat belt citations even though they made up only 13.5 percent of Florida drivers. Seat belt compliance was 91.5 percent for white drivers versus 85.8 percent for black drivers, a difference too small to explain the different rate of ticketing between black and white drivers. The ACLU analysis showed that black drivers would have had over 20,000 fewer seat belt citations if they were ticketed proportionally to total drivers in Florida. The rate that black drivers are ticketed more often than white drivers is four times more in Escambia County, three times more in Palm Beach County and 2.8 times more in Orange County. In Tampa, black drivers received 575 seat belt citations versus 549 for white drivers even though black people make up only 23 percent of Tampa’s population.[9]

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, and Anthony Morgan, a civil rights lawyer, said that in the 1980s and 1990s the RCMP introduced Operation Pipeline, a drug interdiction strategy developed by the Los Angeles Police Department. However, the strategy came under criticism because it directed police officers to allow racial profiling to motivate police stops.[10]

A 2002 analysis by the Toronto Star found that police were more likely to stop black drivers than white drivers in Toronto without evidence of an offence. The Star looked at "out-of-sight" offences such as failing to update a driver’s licence or driving without insurance when no other offence was found. "Out-of-sight" offences could only be discovered if police had some other reason to stop the driver, thus suggesting racial profiling.[11]

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.[12]

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."[13]

In a 2016 report, Vice News and a group from the Seton Hall Law School found that 70 percent of all police traffic stops in Bloomfield New Jersey were against black and Latino drivers even though 60 percent of the residents were white. According to Bloomfield's police director, Samuel A DeMaio, violations were 576 against Hispanics, 574 against blacks and 573 against whites from a recent period. In explaining why blacks and Hispanics had disproportionately more violations than whites, DeMaio said it was not racial profiling nor was it a case of blacks and Latinos being worse drivers. Rather it was because police were concentrated much more in "high-crime" areas, where blacks and Hispanics largely reside, rather than in low-crime areas where whites largely reside. Vice News noticed a heavy police presence in the "high-crime" area where police vigorously pursue misdemeanor violations using tactics such as tailing drivers until they make a mistake, or searching a stopped vehicle for violations that may be unrelated to the reason for the police stop. The Seton Hall group concluded the police were effectively raising revenue for the municipality from people living in or driving through the "high-crime" area.[14]

Police-Public Contact Surveys by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics found that white, black, and Hispanic drivers were stopped by police at similar rates in 2002, 2005, and 2008.[15]

Pretextual stop[edit]

In a pretextual stop (also called an investigatory stop), officers pull over people citing a minor issue, then start asking unrelated questions. University of Kansas professor Charles Epp in a study found that black drivers were three times more likely than whites to be subjected to "pretextual" stops, and five times more likely to be searched during them. However, Epp found no difference in the frequency and treatment with which black and white drivers were stopped for serious violations like speeding. The bias, however, was significant for stops over minor issues such as a broken tail light, a missing front plate or a failure to signal a lane change.[16]

For example, Philando Castile had 52 police stops in 14 years prior to the last fatal stop. Half his charges were dismissed, and none of his convictions were for dangerous offences. The pretext for the fatal stop was a broken tail light, but the real reason was that the police officer thought Castile resembled a robbery suspect.[16]

The Supreme Court ruled in Whren v. United States (1996) that any minor traffic violation is a legitimate justification for a stop, even if the real reason is some other crime-fighting objective. Police chiefs consider pretextual stops as an essential tactic and train their officers to conduct them; thus, the pretextual stop is not a entirely a product of racism.[16]

According to an October 2015 article in the New York Times, many police departments use traffic stops as a tool to make contact with the community often in higher crime areas where more African-Americans live. Police hope that by being proactive, criminals will avoid the area. However, criminologists argue that such police stops alienate law-abiding residents and undermine their trust in the police. Traffic stops often lead to searches, arrests and convictions often for minor offences, with a police record that can lead to lifelong difficulties. This makes it difficult for police to obtain community cooperation in preventing and solving crimes. Criminologists doubt that performing more traffic stops leads to reduced crime. Ronald L. Davis, of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services said: "There is no evidence that just increasing stops reduces crime".[17]

Excessive force[edit]

There have been accusations of excessive force by police officers against black drivers.

In this example, a police officer tries to explain a fear of blacks: Breaion King, an African-American elementary school teacher, was stopped for speeding in June 2015 in Austin, Texas. Officer Bryan Richter ordered King out of her car, and then threw her violently to the ground while arresting her in a parking lot. King felt the officer's reaction was because she was responding too slowly to the officer's orders. She was charged with resisting arrest as well as speeding. When another officer, Patrick Spradlin, was driving King to jail, he answered the question of "why are so many people afraid of black people". Spradlin's answer was because of "violent tendencies" adding "I don’t blame" white people for being afraid of blacks "because of their appearance and whatnot, some of them are very intimidating". Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo found the incident disturbing and put both officers involved under investigation. Prosecutors dropped the charge of resisting arrest, but King still had to pay a $165 fine for speeding.[18]

Make of car[edit]

An episode of The Young Turks published in April 2015 discussed the correlation between make of car used when "driving while black" and the probability of a police stop. The show cited a tweet in February 2015 from Chris Rock, a vocal critic of racial profiling, saying he had just had three police stops in seven weeks. Isaiah Washington tweeted back that he avoided police stops by selling his $90,000 Mercedes G500 and driving a Toyota Prius instead. Jayar Jackson, an African-American and a producer on The Young Turks, recounted his experiences. He said factors such as rim size, year of the car and beat up condition of the car may lead police to think the driver is poor and is up to something illegal. Jackson once had a 1988 Camero and had three police stops in two months. With a 1973 Nova, Jackson had many police stops. Jackson described both these cars as "loud". Driving a Crossfire resulted in one police stop because it looked "quick and fast". Jackson then drove an "unassuming" white sedan and has had no police stops with it. Host Cenk Uygur concluded that for blacks to avoid police stops, the car should be neither too run down nor too flashy, but for non-blacks, this is not a problem.[19]

Plays on the phrase[edit]

Plays on the phrase ("snowclones") include "walking while black" for pedestrian offenses,[20] "learning while black" for students in schools,[21] "shopping while black" for browsing in stores, and "eating while black" for restaurants.[22] 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".[23]

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."[24][25]

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.[26]

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 Boston Marathon bombing, the phrase Running while Arab has come up on social media[27] (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.[28]

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, 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[29] (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.

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". CBC. December 10, 2012. Retrieved June 10, 2013. 
  4. ^ Wyatt, Nelson (July 28, 2010). "Black man says Quebec police stopped him because of his skin colour". The Globe and Mail. Montreal. Retrieved July 29, 2010. 
  5. ^ "New trial ordered in Quebec racial profiling case - Montreal - CBC News". CBC. November 17, 2011. Retrieved June 10, 2013. 
  6. ^ "Black man with 'Quebecois' name files complaint against Longueuil police". CTV Montreal. July 28, 2010. Retrieved July 29, 2010. 
  7. ^ "Driver says he was victim of racial profiling by police, court hears". Montreal Gazette. March 7, 2012. Archived from the original on March 15, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Racial profiling victory for South Shore man". Montreal: CTV News. September 27, 2012. Retrieved September 16, 2015. 
  9. ^ Tyler Tynes, Politics Fellow (21 January 2016). "Black People Ticketed For Not Wearing Seat Belts In Florida Twice As Often As Whites". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-05-21. 
  10. ^ Akwasi Owusu-Bempah & Anthony Morgan (16 July 2016). "A hard truth: Canada's policing style is very similar to the U.S.". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2016-07-18. 
  11. ^ Jim Rankin, Jennifer Quinn, Michelle Shephard, Scott Simmie & John Duncanson (19 October 2002). "Singled out". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2016-07-18. 
  12. ^ Thomas Sowell (October 31, 2007). "'Driving While Black'". Jewish World Review. Retrieved June 10, 2013. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ "Driving While Black in New Jersey". Vice News. 11 April 2016. Retrieved 2016-05-22. 
  15. ^ Christine Eith and Matthew R. Durose (October 2011). "Contacts between Police and the Public, 2008" (PDF). US Department of Justice. Retrieved September 13, 2016. 
  16. ^ a b c Daniel Dale (11 July 2016). "For black Americans, police traffic stops far from 'routine'". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2016-07-11. 
  17. ^ Sharon LaFraniere & Andrew W. Lehren (25 October 2015). "The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-07-21. 
  18. ^ Paul J. Weber, The Associated Press (21 July 2016). "Texas police officer caught on video saying blacks have 'violent tendencies'". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2016-07-21. [see also the video attached to the article.] 
  19. ^ "Chris Rock: "Driving While Black" Repeat Offender". The Young Turks. 2 April 2015. Retrieved 2016-07-13. 
  20. ^ Mosedale, M. (2007). "Critics say a Minneapolis law criminalizes walking while black: What Lurks Beneath?". City Pages. 28 (1369). 
  21. ^ Morse, J. (2002). "Learning while black". Time. Retrieved May 7, 2007. 
  22. ^ Coolican, P. (November 21, 2003). "Chief vows to root out profiling by Patrol". Seattle Times. Retrieved May 7, 2007. 
  23. ^ "ACLU of Nebraska Wins "Flying While Black" Case". ACLU. May 2, 2001. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  24. ^ Cloud, J. (2001). "What's Race Got to do With It?". Time. Retrieved May 17, 2008. 
  25. ^ Washington, J. (2000). "U.S. Customs Applies A Double Standard In Two Directions At Once". JINN. Pacific News Service. Retrieved May 7, 2007. 
  26. ^ Brittney Cooper (November 12, 2013). "Asking for help while black: How it became a capital offense". Salon. Retrieved November 17, 2013. 
  27. ^ Ackerman, S. (April 16, 2013). "When, And Why, to Call a Bombing 'Terrorism'". Wired. Retrieved April 17, 2013. 
  28. ^ Sison, B. (April 16, 2013). "Sources: Injured Saudi man not a suspect in Boston attacks". CBS News. Retrieved April 17, 2013. 
  29. ^ "National Security : Quotes". IMDb.com. Retrieved 2016-07-30. 

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