The last time I was pulled over by a police officer was a couple of years ago on DuSable Lake Shore Drive. Seeing two other drivers who were pulled over, it dawned on me that I probably needed to slow down, as I was driving probably a good 10 miles per hour above the speed limit.
Then, I saw the flashing lights behind me. It was my turn to pull over.
As traffic stops go, this one was fairly routine. The officer was cordial. He told me I was speeding and asked for my license. After returning from his squad car, he told me to slow down. Painless, except for the speeding ticket he gave me.
I hate getting tickets. Who doesn’t? But I was more curious than angry. Were there police waiting to catch motorists on the North Side? To find out, I headed north, purposely driving the speed limit to get a sense of how many others were over the limit.
Practically everybody passed me with ease from 39th Street on the South Side all the way to Hollywood Drive on the North Side. Yet, not a police car in sight.
I didn’t see another police car until I got back to the South Side, where a motorist was pulled over not far from where I’d gotten my ticket.
I wasn’t surprised by the discrepancy, but I brushed it off. Maybe the cops would be catching speeders on the North Side the next day.
I was wrong. Racial profiling of drivers is alive and well in Illinois.
For months this year, I worked on a project with colleagues from WBEZ and journalists with the Investigative Project on Race and Equity to document the widening racial disparities in traffic stops in Illinois. Two stories were published by WBEZ and the Sun-Times.
We found Black motorists were the subjects of nearly 31% of all traffic stops in Illinois last year, even though just 14% of the state’s adult population is Black. In 2004, Black motorists were the subjects of about 17% of traffic stops statewide. Several Black men recounted the many times they’d been pulled over by police. Some shared details of tense encounters.
The statistics and stories were all too familiar for me. I’ve been stopped by police at least a dozen times, mostly on the South Side and usually because I forgot to turn on my headlights or a tail light was out. Most of those encounters have stuck with me. During my first traffic stop, two state troopers searched every inch of my car — under the seats, in between the seat cushions, even unloading my trunk. One trooper even asked if I had anything on me that I didn’t want him to find.
There are those who say Chicago police target Black and Latino drivers to look for more serious crimes, like guns or drugs. But last year, collectively, Black motorists were stopped by Chicago police four times more often than whites, even though there are more white adults in the city than Black.
Frequent reminders of other people’s suspicions
Whether it’s a single encounter or an entire department’s wide racial disparities, traffic stops communicate law enforcement’s suspicions of Black motorists.
But racial profiling isn’t solely a law enforcement issue. I am often reminded of other people’s suspicions of me.
I’ve sensed the tension in the cold silence when I’m alone in an elevator with a stranger. I’ve watched others redirect their paths, even crossing the street altogether, as I walked toward them. I’ve been followed by employees or security guards while perusing the aisles in stores.
And practically everywhere I shop in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods, I see bulletproof glass, employees checking my bags before I exit or merchandise in locked cases. In some stores, buying batteries, detergent, deodorant and even a $3 tube of toothpaste requires shoppers to get a clerk to unlock a case — and the employee takes the merchandise to the check-out counter until you’re done shopping.
Recently, I couldn’t bring myself to ring a bell for customer assistance in the toothpaste aisle. I just left. I’ll buy it someplace else, I told myself.
I am not a threat or a thief. Yet, everywhere I turn, there’s someone communicating to me, in some way, that I am. That other Black people are as well.
It’s degrading. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s exhausting.
About 20 years ago, in a landmark study, renowned sociologist Devah Pager found that white job applicants with a criminal record were more likely to get a callback or a job offer from employers than Black applicants with no criminal background.
“This suggests that being Black in America today is essentially like having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding employment,” Pager (who died in 2018) said in an interview with the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Apparently, being Black in America is like having a felony conviction in many other walks of life.
Alden Loury is the data projects editor for WBEZ. He writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.