No matter how well dressed, or how intelligent or how wealthy a black person is, there’s no escaping skin color and there’s no escaping the racial profiling that goes along with it. If anyone can prove that point, it’s renowned physicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who in a Facebook post from Tuesday, described dozens of encounters he’s had with police, for no reason other than his being African-American.
In the post, Tyson told of a conference for black physicists he attended in 1991. One evening, after enjoying good food and wine, the discussion turned to the police. The physicists began relaying stories of being pulled over by the police.
While most people probably have stories of being pulled over a handful of times in their lives, this table full of physicists had more than a handful of stories, and the intrusiveness of the stops was pretty telling.
"As for me, I had a dozen different encounters to draw from. There was the time I was stopped late at night at an underpass on an empty road in New Jersey for having changed lanes without signaling. The officer told me to get out of my car and questioned me for ten minutes around back with the bright head lights of his squad car illuminating my face. Is this your car? Yes. Who is the woman in the passenger seat? My wife. Where are you coming from? My parents house. Where are you going? Home. What do you do for a living? I am an astrophysicist at Princeton University. What’s in your trunk? A spare tire, and a lot of other greasy junk. He went on to say that the “real reason” why he stopped me was because my car’s license plates were much newer and shinier than the 17-year old Ford that I was driving. The officer was just making sure that neither the car nor the plates were stolen.
In my other stories, I had been stopped by the police while transporting my home supply of physics textbooks into my newly assigned office in graduate school. They had stopped me at the entrance to the physics building where they asked accusatory questions about what I was doing. This one was complicated because a friend offered to drive me and my boxes to my office (I had not yet learned to drive). Her car was registered in her father’s name. It was 11:30 PM. Open-topped boxes of graduate math and physics textbooks filled the trunk. And we were transporting them into the building. I wonder how often that scenario shows up in police training tapes. In total, I was stopped two or three times by other security officers while entering physics buildings, but was never stopped entering the campus gym."
As a scientist, Tyson is cautious about jumping to conclusions. He noted that he and his colleagues had these police stops in common. Were police targeting physicists for some reason? Are smart people automatically suspicious? It couldn’t have been the cars. Some were old, some were new. Some stops were during the day, some at night. The conclusion Tyson made, though is that:
"We were guilty not of DWI (Driving While Intoxicated), but of other violations none of us knew were on the books: DWB (Driving While Black), WWB (Walking While Black), and of course, JBB (Just Being Black)."
It’s rare that Tyson jumps into politics, and he didn’t specifically mention Black Lives Matter or any of the infamous black victims of police, but one can certainly infer by the timing of his post, that it’s in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and it’s further proof that all the education and poise in the world doesn’t stop black people from being targeted. This is the very definition of white privilege.
He’s also right. Black people are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police and they’re also more likely to be innocent of any wrongdoing during traffic stops. Fortunately, Tyson never had to go to jail, but black people are far more likely to be arrested, convicted, and yes, shot. If a group of scientists can conclude that there are racial disparities in the justice system, perhaps we should listen.