Did you ever see that 1984 Eddie Murphy sketch “White Like Me” from Saturday Night Live? Murphy disguises himself as a white person and sees just how many rules don’t apply if your skin is paler. No collateral for a bank loan. Free food in restaurants. Even a free newspaper. Since 1984, we have elected an African American president, but, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so brilliantly argued in “The Case for Reparations,” black people are still being plundered in America. Here’s another example of how racism creeps into ordinary life as observed by a 65 year old white woman, me!
This summer I was in a suburban New York traffic court to defend a speeding ticket. I was caught driving 20 miles over the posted speed limit. While waiting my turn, I chatted with the young African American man seated next to me. He was young, maybe 21. He was tall, well over 6 feet, maybe 6 inches more. And he was large, could easily play line back on a football team. I asked him why he was there, and this is his story: He was driving with his brother when the car in front of them suddenly stopped. He was able to avert any real damage by braking quickly although—and he showed me a picture— there was an inch-long scrape on the bumper of the other car. That driver was a woman. He left out her age and race, but I assumed that she was white, because she panicked, saying that she was tired of “you people” getting away with stuff, and insisted that she had to call a police officer immediately.
Let’s give this woman the benefit of some doubt. Maybe she was in an unfamiliar neighborhood, maybe she was afraid of two young men who happened to be black, or maybe she watches too much Fox News.
When the officer arrived, she gave this young man a ticket for driving too close behind, which although valid (there is a presumption that a rear-ender is always the fault of the vehicle in the rear), seemed ridiculous in light of the damage.
Listening to his story, my reluctance to call this racism was diminishing. The officer is a woman, race unknown, but why issue a ticket, which will cost time and money, when there is no real harm? Shouldn’t the officer be tempering the situation to conserve government resources?
Actually it was ridiculous to issue a ticket. Just a few months ago, my husband, a white man, was hit while driving by a car operated by another white man. The collision caused over $3,000 worth of damage to our car. In that instance both drivers agreed to call the police. From the damage and position of the cars, the officer admitted to my husband that the other driver was at fault, but he didn’t issue a citation. No need to, just among the guys.
At traffic court, I helped the young man put together a coherent story to tell to the referee. The referees can negotiate pleas, which later are signed into orders by the judge, or can order that the case go to trial. The young man was called up to the bar first. All of the referees are white, all are men except for one. She called him to her without a smile or smattering of humanity. Although he had a very compelling story, along with pictures, she offered him only two options: plead guilty to four points on his license or plead not guilty and tell his story at trial. Of course, what was unmentioned was that any guilty plea would also include a fine and increased cost for mandatory car insurance.
When my new friend reported back, I could not suppress my conclusions. I could only think that this insignificant mistake had escalated because of racism, specifically targeted at African American men.
Ordinarily, everything that happened to this young man would be considered as the normal operation of the rule of law: calling police to the scene of an accident, issuing a ticket for a moving violation, and a choice of pleading guilty or not guilty before the referee. But that’s not what happens to white people. When I was called up by a different referee, I told my story: a lane of traffic was closed off to permit tree trimming that turned a 15-minute trip into an hour-long delay. I had to go to the bathroom desperately. I never denied that I was driving 20 miles over the speed limit when the officer pulled me over. The referee offered me a jaywalking ticket with a $180 fine. No points on my license. No increased car insurance premiums.
So the rules get enforced for some people and the rules get bent for others. This young man’s license is only a year old. Now he has to miss two days of work. Loaded on top of him might be a fine, points on his license, and increased insurance premiums. This will make it much more expensive for him to live and work because driving a car might get very expensive. This is yet another form of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls racial plunder.
Hazel Weiser is the assistant dean for graduate programs at New York Law School.