This One Image Sums up the Devastating Reality of Driving While Black

July 22nd 2015

A photo appeared on Twitter on Wednesday which drives at the heart of a nationwide problem, captured in the simple but profound phrase "driving while black."

The Los Angeles Times' Molly Hennessy-Fiske snapped the photo in Prairie View, Texas, where 28-year-old Sandra Bland was arrested after a traffic stop turned violent on July 10. Bland was found hanged in a Waller County jail cell three days later, and her death is currently being investigated by multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Texas Rangers and FBI.

"Signal lane change or sheriff may kill you," the banner reads. Though it was a state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety that pulled Bland over, the message still resonates, as racial profiling at traffic stops is a sobering reality for many Black communities across the United States.


People of color are at a significantly higher risk of being pulled over by police than those who are white, according to the National Institute of Justice. "Researchers have been working to figure out how much of this disparity is because of discrimination and how much is due to other factors, but untangling these other factors is challenging," the agency explained.

Looking at the statistics from the Justice Department, black drivers are approximately 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white people—and 23 percent more than Hispanic drivers.

"'Driving while black' is, indeed, a measurable phenomenon," the Washington Post reported. "Relative to other races, blacks are more likely to get pulled over for vehicle defects or record checks. Perhaps most troubling from a civil liberties perspective, nearly five percent of Blacks weren't given any reason for why they stopped, compared to 2.6 percent of whites and 3.3 percent of Hispanics."

Black people are also nearly three times as likely to be searched by police than whites. And as one might imagine, this has translated into stark disparities in the perception of fairness of traffic stops.

"67.5 percent of black motorists stopped by police said the reason for the stop was legitimate, compared with 73.6 percent of Hispanics and 83.6 percent of whites," researchers at the Bureau of Justice Statistics said. "In general, people of all races were more likely to say the stop was legitimate when the officer who pulled them over was of the same race."

Driving while black has become a social media mantra of sorts, aimed at exposing the unfairness of racial profiling at traffic stops. And the image from Texas--a sobering tribute to the deceased Sandra Bland--has reminded many of the work that still needs to be done to correct this problem in our criminal justice system.

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