Driving with the headlights off

A few months ago, my girlfriend got a call late on a Sunday night from her employer telling her she had to come into the office to fix a business emergency.

It was around midnight, and she’d had a couple of glasses of wine earlier in the evening. She wasn’t drunk, but since I hadn’t had anything to drink, I offered to drive her in out of an abundance of caution.

Her car was boxing mine into the driveway, so we decided to take it. Almost immediately, we saw that it was really low on fuel, however, and we pulled into a gas station before getting on the highway. When we got to the pump, I turned off the car, but her headlights wouldn’t turn off on their own, so I shut the lamps before stepping out to pump the gas.

After we tanked up, I got back behind the wall, turned on the motor, and pulled onto the street. A block and a half later, I saw red and blue sirens flashing behind me, signaling to me that I should pull over.

I instantly realized that the reason I was being pulled over was that I had forgotten to turn back on the headlights, so I flipped them on as I pulled over, and prepared my speech and apology for the officer.

The thing is, I never really thought I was in danger of getting a ticket. I knew that I had screwed up and violated traffic laws, but it was an accident that I quickly rectified and more importantly, the reason I was on the road in the first place was to make sure my girlfriend (and others driving on the road) were as safe as possible. So I was very confident that the officer would understand what had happened, and that he’d give me a verbal warning. As it turns out, that’s exactly what he did. I’m probably biased, but I think he made the right decision.

Anyway, as you know if you’ve ever seen my picture on the masthead, I’m a white guy, and the car I was driving was a luxury brand. I’ve got no reason to think that the officer in particular let me off because I’m white, but I do think that part of the reason why I was treated fairly was that I expected to be treated fairly (which in this case meant getting away with violating a traffic law).

And a big part of the reason I expected to be treated fairly is that by and large, white folks driving luxury brand vehicles get treated pretty well by law enforcement. Given that history, it was reasonable for me to not be that concerned about the possibility the officer wouldn’t cut me a break.

It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but I have to imagine that if I were somebody else — perhaps an African-American, or perhaps a white person or a Latino in a less expensive car — I wouldn’t have been nearly as confident that the officer would look the other way, and I’m sure that my lack of confidence in the outcome would have impacted my interactions with the officer for the worse.

Certainly, if I were to have gotten an officer who was biased — either by race, or class, or something else — I wouldn’t have gotten let off the hook.

Obviously, my story is not the same as the one faced by Professor Gates, and the officer I dealt with wasn’t Officer Crowley. And clearly, the stakes in my case were far lower than they were for either of those two.

But still, there is a disparity in the way we were treated. Professor Gates didn’t do anything wrong. I did, at least according to traffic laws.

But he got arrested — in his own home — and I got a verbal and a “have a good night, drive safely.”

We’ll never know what would have happened if our places had been traded. But I suspect the outcomes would have been different. That doesn’t mean that Officer Crowley is necessarily a bad person, or that Professor Gates acted like a saint. But it does suggest that issues of race and class and privilege are still real, and that as a society, we still have work to do.

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