Every year, I ask my students how many of them have been stopped by the police. Year after year, every Black man in the class raises his hand. So do some women, but the class laughs sympathetically at the one young woman who is shocked to find that everyone else was able to talk their way out of a ticket. As one Black woman said with great humor, “Even I got away with it.”
Blacks are stopped more often than whites. More blacks are imprisoned than whites. Is that because they are stopped more often, or because they commit more crimes?
It has long been true that almost every factor that aims to predict violent offending — lack of a high school degree, drug use in the home, a dead-end job or no job at all, the absence of a father — also correlates with race. The point is that race doesn’t cause crime, but the factors that do, according to most studies, correlate with the reality of life for too many Black people in America. And until we address those factors, until there is real systemic change beginning on the day a baby is born, the racism in the criminal justice system will persist.
It was not until the night of former President Barack Obama’s inauguration that I understood, at least a little, how it feels. I was driving a new used sportscar I had just bought, meaning it had no plates. The officers from the Beverly Hills Police Department claimed I’d made a “wide right turn,” which couldn’t be the case because I’d made no turns at all in Beverly Hills. I was this close to being done with it all when I made a critical mistake: I told them, smiling a little too much, that I had spent much of my day and night on television as the ranking house liberal on Fox News.
In that moment, I became “Miss Famous Democrat.” I was ordered out of the car. Could I hop on one leg in a straight line while wearing three-inch heels? I could not; my balance was off. I explained to the officers that, while I had finally been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, my insurance company had yet to approve the expensive medicine. It didn’t matter what I said. I was a famous Democrat, who probably flaunted it over their heroes, on the night America inaugurated its first Black president.
They put me in the back seat of a police car — with handcuffs, no less. The last time I had been in that position (minus the handcuffs) was after I had been raped. I started freaking out. The worst part came when I passed the breathalyzer, because Miss Famous Democrat was not a poor Black but a middle-aged white woman who happened to teach criminal law at the University of Southern California and was on TV all the time. They had made a mistake.
They kept me sitting in a holding cell for hours while they checked for warrants in other states, which made them laugh because how likely was that? The computer was down. For hours? A phone call? No chance. Speak to my lawyer? No. I was finally allowed to call my teenage son. They had no reason to turn my purse upside down and unzip the separate pocket, but they did anyway; they were not interested in the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Chadwick. They found one pain pill in a prescription bottle with my name on it, which I carried at my doctor’s direction in case the pain became unbearable. A wave of relief. Drugs would save them. They insisted on a urine test, and then, once they had that, they just let me go, no ticket, no summons, no nothing. I even got my emergency pill back.
Do nothing, my lawyer (whom I never met but who was said to be wired in Beverly Hills) advised, and nothing will happen. And nothing did. Eight weeks later, the second urine test was said to be murky. No charges were being filed. And no, I didn’t complain, because I didn’t want to be stopped every time I drove through Beverly Hills.
But when I applied for my TSA fast-lane clearance, the stop showed up on my record. Luckily for me, the TSA agent was a man of color. He looked at the date, listened to my account, looked at the date and nodded his head as he cleared me.
Susan Estrich is a lawyer, political commentator and former political operative.