The ‘Crime’ of Driving While Black

Actor Levar Burton went on CNN to talk about race and policing and explained how he handles traffic stops. Don Lemon also recounts some of his experiences dealing with the police. Watch this video:


In the early 90s, I was doing comedy in Grand Blanc, Michigan (Grand Blanc means “great white” — and that is not a coincidence) with a comic named Rodney Johnson. He and I were riding from the hotel to the club together in his van when we got pulled over by the police. The ostensible reason for pulling him over was that he had a burned out license plate light, but the real reason was obviously that he was flagrantly driving while black in a lily white town.

The next thing we know, they haul us out of the van, cuff us and throw us in the back of the police car because the plate came back as stolen. They spend about 45 minutes searching the van and, of course, find nothing. Then they come back and tell us, “Oh, we made a mistake. When we called in the license plate number, the dispatcher got one of the numbers wrong and it came back as stolen, but now we know it’s not. Sorry. You’re free to go.” All of that was bullshit, of course. They were simply harassing a black man driving through their town.

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  • John Pieret

    I do that because I live in America.

    Is there any greater possible condemnation of our country?

  • huntstoddard

    Your comeback should have been “what are the chances you get one digit of a lottery number wrong?,” but yeah, you never think of things like that at the time. Not that it would have mattered, but it would have been fun watching them try to prove that there actually was a stolen van, at that moment, with a plate number that had a single digit different from yours. It’s fun to fantasize about these things.

  • Karen Locke

    huntstoddard, there ARE no good comebacks to cops. Say something smartass and you get charged with resisting arrest, especially if you’re black or brown.

  • atheist

    Flex Your Rights” has some ideas about the best way to deal with police encounters, especially if you are black or brown. It’s pathetic that there needs to be a fucking manual but there you go.

  • tbp1

    Every black male friend I have has stories like this to tell, every single one of them (although not all of them have actually been cuffed or hauled to jail).

    It carries over into other areas of life, too. One of my black friends is a computer guy. He’s done everything from sales to project management overseeing a dozen or more employees and a multi-million dollar budget. He’s very, very smart, and I’m sure makes more money than I do, although we’ve never actually compared paychecks. He says that when he was on the road, making consulting or repair calls, he would show up wearing a suit and tie, with an appointment on the books, with all the appropriate documentation and ID, and often some receptionist with barely a high school education would insist on calling his company to make sure he was legit, and call her own boss to double-verify, before letting him get to work. This would waste a half hour or more sometimes. He says he checked with his white counterparts, and it didn’t happen to them at the very same company, so it wasn’t a matter of tight security applied to everyone, it was because he’s black.

    I’m your basic boringly safe driver, and was even when I was young, so I haven’t had a lot of encounters with cops. But in the few I have, I had actually committed whatever minor offense they stopped me for, and in every case the cops were polite, addressed me as “Mr.” and “sir,” (even when I was a long-haired teenager), and sent me on my way as quickly and expeditiously as possible, sometimes with a warning rather than a real ticket. Could it be because I look like an Aryan poster boy—very white, blonde and blue-eyed? Nah….

  • davem

    I was reported to the police (in the UK) some 14 times, while breaking into my car to retrieve the keys I’d left inside. After an hour or so, they arrived, and helped me break in. No questions asked. When I asked why they hadn’t come earlier, one said “we realised you weren’t a thief, because a real thief wouldn’t have taken more than 15 seconds”.

  • anthrosciguy

    Back when I lived in California there as a news story, probably mostly local, about Levar Burton being stopped in Gilroy, Ca. This was around 1980 more or less. He was stopped, according to the cops, because he was wearing an expensive track suit (a common style then) and driving the medium-priced BMW of the time. They stopped him for an hour and a half, with no mention of any belligerence or difficulty dealing with him.

    Now, mind you, this is after he had starred in Roots, which was seen by approximately every single white person in America, he was starring in Reading Rainbow, watched by what seemed like every kid in America, and was on Star Trek: TNG. He was one of the more well-known black men in the USA and had a very distinctive, easy to remember name. Yet they stopped him for an hour and a half because the track suit and car showed he had money.

    Now imagine being non-famous, not having a distinctive well-known name, and being black.

  • Levar Burton? Why wouldn’t the cops pull him over?

    Look at the facts:

    1. He can go twice as high.

    2. He can go anywhere.

    2a. He’s got friends to know.

    2b. And ways to grow.

    3. He can be anything.

    All I’m asking is that you wipe away your preconceptions, and take a look. It’s in a book. A Reading Rainbow. A. Reading. Rainbow.

  • doog

    It’s crap like this that has made me very untrusting of cops. A few weeks ago i was taking my dog to the park and round the corner to see a squad car and a squad suv(?). There was a bike on the ground so at first i thought maybe someone got hit by a car. But then i see a woman with her hands up. I just turned around and went home. Bit was more like 40% afraid of the very possible criminal and 60% afraid of the cops. What a wonderful country we live in!

    On the subject of dogs and cops, here’s the latest example of that New Professionalism:

    i don’t condone the death threats, but i do think the cop grossly overacted here. As many point out, cops have a host of non-lethal weapons they could have used first. And many clueless dolts don’t seem to realize that it has more to do with abuse of police powers than the killing of an innocent dog.

  • CaitieCat

    Great, MO, now I’ve got the Doors’ version of that song in my head, from the video that some late-night host did (sorry, don’t remember names, don’t watch cable anymore). Awesome version, but annoying as an earworm. Grr!

  • antoinepeoples

    A few years ago I was driving through Rochester, MI and was pulled over by an Oakland County Sheriff officer. I was pulled out of my car at gunpoint, told to lay flat on the ground and cuffed. After backup arrived my car was searched at which point they found my paramedic uniform (the company I worked for did backup EMS for Rochester btw). Seeing this, they uncuffed me and told me that my license plate had come back as stolen. I have a 3 letter vanity license plate and it had been registered to me for about 10 years at that time, but apparently, someone with a Texas license plate with the same letters had reported the plate (or car? Hard time believing someone would have the same plate AND car but I digress) stolen. Yeah, right.

  • CaitieCat

    antoinepeoples, I’m guessing that from your description of the incident, you have (as a friend of mine used to say of himself) “got the complexion to make the connection”. It’s revolting that this is so (the disproportionate response, I mean, not your being a POC).

    And it’s one of those ways in which white privilege is really invisible to white people unless the statistics are made public, because it’s very hard to notice a privilege which is primarily expressed in “things that don’t happen to you because you’re white”, like being followed around stores by the in-store security, or stopped for DwB, or car thoroughly searched at the border, or pulled aside for extra security measures, et c., et c.. It is also, on a personal basis, a privilege we cannot really give up, in that we’re not the ones making the decision. It’s not like you can shout at the police as you drive by unstopped, “Hey, stop me, suspect my white ass, treat me badly like you would a Black motorist!” Or tell the ATS Security Theatre Players that they should treat you just like they will Rashid right behind you. It just doesn’t work that way.

    It is thus incumbent on we who have the privilege, if we want a society in which this disproportionality doesn’t happen, to get at the roots of the issues.

    For me, as a trans* woman, this disproportionality also happens (though much less now that my ID matches me), but even that doesn’t mean I haven’t white privilege in it, because my Black trans* sisters would have it that much worse than either me or Black cis men.


    There has also been some blind-testing of narcotics dogs, which has discovered that the dogs and their handlers tend to indicate more often when the person being stopped is of an ethnicity or appearance that corresponds to those people stopped most often by NYC’s stop-and-frisk abomination. Dogs are very hierarchical, and have been bred for a long time to respond favourably to the master’s wishes, and are thus quite capable of reading the handler’s subconscious body language to give the result master wants.

    So even when they have a tool that might have been used to make more reasonable searches, that tool can be as flawed as its wielder is. I don’t think anyone here needs to be told what such a flaw might be.

  • My dog is a bit, lovable mutt who thinks the world is made up of two, and only two, types of creatures – friends and angry roosters.

    The one, and only, time he ever behaved aggressively towards another human being was an excellent demonstration of why drug dogs are useless. I was over by the chicken coop, with my headphones on and my back turned to the driveway when a FEDEX guy came in. He needed a signature, so he came over to where I was, stood about 10′ away and raised his voice to say ‘Excuse me, Ma’am’. I was startled. I jumped and let out a vocalization. My dog went from laying in a sunbeam to ‘I’m gonna eat this guy’ in less than a second. Fortunately for the FEDEX guy, the dog did happen to have a leash on and I was able to grab it and haul him back.

    For the next three years, whenever that delivery guy came to our house, he had to stay in his vehicle and honk because if the dog noticed him, he went on the attack.

    All because the guy happened to startle me once. I never got any bad vibes off the man, and he’d actually delivered before and the dog had been fine with him then. But he got a fear response from the ‘alpha’, and there was no convincing the dog from that point on that he was anything other than something that needed to be torn limb from limb.

    One fairly small indication. That was it.

  • imback

    @10 CaitieCat, here’s Jimmy Fallon doing the Doors doing Reading Rainbow

    apologies in advance

  • Childermass

    davem @ 6: “we realised you weren’t a thief, because a real thief wouldn’t have taken more than 15 seconds”.

    Because every car thief starts out supper fast and competent. It must be inborn. Somehow I don’t think so.

    So it means that thieves don’t need to worry about being arrested if they appear to be incompetent giving them a grace period to perfect their art. If they are white…

  • tbp1

    Some years ago there was an incident involving a black actor, literally the star of a Broadway show, who was arrested in front of his own apartment building, detained, and stripped-searched when cops had reports of—get this—Hispanics, not even blacks, with guns in the neighborhood. He missed a couple of shows as a result:

  • sunsangnim

    “If we reconfigure the car’s engine, we can generate an inverse-phase tachyon pulse, rendering the cops’ weapons useless.”

    “Make it so.”

  • caseloweraz


    I remember hearing him tell about that incident on TV, back in the day.


    I see what you did there…


    I never heard that song (any version) and never knew the Doors did a version. Amazing: Morrison (I mean Fallon) makes “a reading rainbow” sound like it has sinister overtones.


    Or better yet, they could use their crimson force field. (Remember that episode?)