Hey People, Context Matters

I’m not going to link to anything because this has come up so often that I don’t want to single anyone out, but who the hell doesn’t know that race is an issue in the United States.

Yes, I’m talking to you, person who wonders why a reportedly by-the-book police shooting of a violent, mentally unstable white guy doesn’t result in an uproar whereas a reportedly by-the-book police shooting of a violent, mentally unstable black guy results in multiday protests.


Most people would agree that Jamar Clark was not exactly a saint, and some close to him say he was trying to change. I believe that.

But the difference in perception of an unfortunate event stems from a lot of minor events that don’t make the news. There is a reason people rally behind someone like Clark.

The big reason is everyday interactions with law enforcement. I can’t tell you the whole story because I am not black, but I can tell you this.

I’ve been pulled over by the police for failure to signal a lane change and/or erratic driving about a dozen times. A few of these even happened on interior residential streets that did not have lanes painted on road. As a former driver’s ed instructor, I know I had violated the law.

However, I think it’s odd that every time I was pulled over for not signaling a lane change, I was with a black co-worker. I’m a terrible driver and vaguely off-white guy all of the time, but I have never been pulled over for something as stupid as not signaling a lane change when driving by myself.

I’m lucky. None of the stops lasted more than 10 minutes and I was never issued a citation (which means the stops probably never entered a police officer’s daily log).

What would you do if you thought your every move was scrutinized to the exact letter of the law?

Would your opinion of by the book police procedure change?

My experience is very limited. Please share your story in the comments.


6 thoughts on “Hey People, Context Matters

  1. I was going to blog about the Jamar Clark situation and all the protests going on but it’s so controversial that I thought I better stay away. My husband is a police officer so it’s a touchy subject. However, in your case, it seems more than a coincidence that you’d keep getting pulled over when you weren’t alone. It’s unfortunate that race still plays a role in our lives today.

  2. You are the kind of person that this country needs more of. It was brave of you to voice your opinion on the matter and say things the way that you did. For a second there I thought you were going to give the “I’m white and I get pulled over too so get over it” excuse that I’ve heard a thousand times. It is incredibly refreshing to hear someone essentially say, “I can’t say I understand because I haven’t experienced it myself, but I acknowledge that these kinds of things are happening.” I think that is a huge part of the problem, that many people aren’t willing to do that. So kudos to you.

    1. Thanks. The phrase that got old very quickly for me was “If you weren’t doing anything wrong, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.” A “so get over it” was implied in this comment too,

  3. If there is a belief that my every move was scrutinzed to the exact letter of the law, I would try to keep an open mind. In a psychology class, I learned that correlation does not always indicate causation. Recently, I asked a customer for his ID. His credit card was not signed. I was surprised when he asked if I did the same for everyone. My premise for asking for the ID was the fact that it was not signed – nothing else. Last week, I got heckled by another customer when I asked to see an id for a 93 year old lady. My store’s policy is to check an ID if a card is not signed. I do it because it is my job. I also do it as a customer courtesy for those that want an ID checked when their card is used.

    I think when you got pulled over it could have been a case of racism. It’s hard to say because I was not in the car that day. I don’t have all the details. However, the officer may have had a different rationale when he pulled you over. It is possible that he thought that such a small infraction of the law (changing lanes without a turn signal) could lead to something much more catastrophic (a deadly car accident). He might have pulled you over to see if you were fit for driving. His concern may have been for the other drivers on the road. In addition, when many criminals are under duress from committing a crime (at least this is what I see on TV) they tend to drive erratically and make minor driving mistakes. Many fugitives are finally brought to justice because of a minor traffic violation. It is possible that he had to scan your license to make sure you were not a wanted criminal.

    1. In chemistry and social science experiments, a key to determining causation is isolating a variable. In the case of my traffic stops and driving in general, there were several constants:
      Same crummy driver
      Same car
      Same license plate
      (Mostly) Same Minneapolis neighborhood

      The variable introduced when being pulled over was having a black male passenger. This is something that really made me think. (And the fact that no citations were issued means that this is something that will be difficult to analyze properly — my experiences represent a woeful sample size).

      Of course, this was not done in a lab and there are any number of other variables that could have come into play. The police might have been on the lookout for two guys who fit our description or been cracking down on minor offenses at the time. I have no idea.

      Correlation is not the same as causation, but it can definitely change people’s perceptions. I do try to keep an open mind.

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