Were you surprised by the reaction of African Americans to the killing of Michael Brown this past August? I know I wasn’t. Part of it is that I grew up in St. Louis County, where race relations have always been palpably tense, if not much discussed until recently. But the bigger reason is an article we published this past January, seven months before the Brown shooting, that just screamed out pay attention to this before it’s too late!
The piece was Driving While Black by Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody. In it, the authors, political scientists from the University of Kansas, present the results of research they did on Missouri motorists who had been pulled over by police. Their first-of-its-kind survey was able to distinguish between the attitudes of people stopped for traffic violations, like speeding, and those pulled over on suspicion that they might be carrying drugs or illegal guns, called “investigatory” stops.
Their data showed that while whites and blacks are pulled over at virtually the same rate for traffic stops, African Americans are three times more likely than whites to be pulled over for investigatory stops and five times more likely to have their cars searched.
The survey also showed that African-Americans do not mind, any more than whites do, being pulled over for legitimate traffic violations, but they deeply resent the investigatory stops—for reasons that aren’t hard to understand when you hear about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those stops:
One gentleman, Billy, told a story about how, on the way to a job interview in Des Moines, he was pulled over by a Missouri highway patrolman for speeding even though he was going, at most, two miles over the speed limit. The trooper made Billy get out of his car and put his hands on the hood while he searched his car. Finding nothing, explained Billy, the trooper “came back and said, ‘The reason why we checked your car is we’ve been having problems with people trafficking drugs up and down the highway.’ So that was that.” It was not the only time this happened to Billy. On another occasion, he, his wife, and his cousin were pulled over on their way to visit an ill relative and their rental van was searched for drugs by a Missouri sheriff’s deputy.
Here’s how Epp and Maynard-Moody sum what they see as the effects of this pull-over-and-frisk policy:
The numbers game that police play with investigatory stops is a recipe for giving offense to large numbers of innocent people. Pervasive, ongoing suspicious inquiry sends the unmistakable message that the targets of this inquiry look like criminals: they are second-class citizens…It is the message that people like you are targets of surveillance, not the beneficiaries of protection. And while investigatory stops do enable police to find some lawbreakers and get them off the street, they also undermine the minority community’s trust in law enforcement and thereby its willingness to share information vital to good police work. Sixteen percent of black respondents to our survey reported that they did not feel comfortable calling the police if they needed help, compared to only 5 percent of whites.
Wonder why so many African-Americans in Missouri and elsewhere were quick to conclude that Michael Brown was innocent, or at least the victim of overaggressive policing? There’s your answer, or part of it at any rate.
I’m bringing up this article not because I want to brag about how prescient we were—well, maybe a little—but because today is the beginning our annual winter pledge drive here at the Washington Monthly. More than many of you probably realize, we rely on donations from our readers to keep this website and magazine going. And one of the reasons I hope you’ll support us is that we publish a lot of stories like Driving While Black: ahead-of the-pack journalism that screams out pay attention to this before it’s too late! Sometimes the authorities and the rest of the press listen to us, sometimes they don’t. But at least our readers have the advantage of not being surprised when the shit hits the fan.
So if you value our early-warning style of journalism, and if you appreciate the prolific, insightful and ahead-of-the-curve commentary you get every day from Ed Kilgore and from our other great bloggers—people like Martin Longman, David Atkins, D.R. Tucker, and Nancy LeTourneau—now’s the time to show it. Please make a donation, in whatever amount you can afford—$100, $50, $25, even $10—by clicking here. The Washington Monthly is a 501c(3) so your donations are tax deductible. We really appreciate it.