Driving While Brown

Nov 21, 2017
9:36 AM

Leupp Road, Arizona (Photo Marianne Serra/ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

My daughter is a young Latina mother. I adopted her as an infant from Peru, so, technically, she is an immigrant. A mother of small children, she panicked when Arizona passed SB 1070 and became anxious about proving her U.S. citizenship in case she was pulled over by the police for a minor traffic violation. She worried about what would happen to her children if she were detained. So she started carrying her passport at all times and worried about keeping her phone charged.

When Arizona SB 1070 became law, I saw the panic and anxiety that it provoked firsthand. SB 1070 requires police to determine the immigration status of people detained or arrested if the officers have reason to believe that they are not in the U.S. legally. This bill opened the door for racial profiling, i.e., making judgements about people based on the color of their skin, their appearance, and how they speak. Although Sheriff Joe Arpaio is no longer in office and recently escaped prison with a presidential pardon, U.S. District Court Judge Bolt denied Arpaio’s request to vacate his criminal record. Although this judicial action affirms that ethnic profiling of Latinos is illegal, people of color, especially immigrants, still have a lot to fear about driving.

Many African American parents teach their children about DWB (Driving while Black) when they learn to drive. Perceptions of racial discrimination are widespread with 60 percent of Black Americans saying that they or a family members was stopped or unfairly treated by police because of their race. Bureau of Justice Statistics document racial disparities: the data from 2014 show that 13 percent of black drivers were stopped by police at least once compared to only 10 percent of Hispanic and white drivers. The racial gap is not limited to stops but continues throughout the police encounter. Blacks are more likely to have their cars searched, and Black and Latino drivers were 11 to 41 percent more likely to receive tickets. These statistics affirm my experience sharing a car with my then teenaged daughter. She usually got a ticket while I was verbally warned. To be sure, age and driving experience played a role, but I am also certain that being a blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned woman was to my advantage.

To be sure, many factors can influence the racial disparity in traffic stops and citations—including race and ethnic differences in the amount of driving, stoppable offenses, DUI rates and patterns of police neighborhood patrols. The results are complicated, finding no difference in some cases, while favoring Blacks sometimes and sometimes whites, in other cases.

Two compelling pieces of evidence lead me to conclude that race plays a role. First, Black and Latino drivers and passengers are less likely to wear seatbelts—this may immediately alert police to a traffic violation. Second, in one study of traffic stops, the racial disparity was greater during the day, when race can be more easily observed, than at night.

Although the Supreme Court upheld the portion of SB 1070 that allows police to check immigration status of people stopped, detained or arrested, racial profiling remains illegal and takes an individual and societal toll. Racial profiling contributes to the growing public distrust of police, even though it is difficult to document. With the increase in both police shootings and shooting of police officers, the tensions have been raised on both sides of the car window.

What steps can communities take?


Patricia MacCorquodale is a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, where she teaches and researches educational and occupational inequalities based on gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality.  She is a 2016 Tucson Public Voices Fellow.