Speeding While White: In Memory of Philando Castile

By: Jeanne Cameron

I’m driving west on NY-28 through the scenic Hudson Valley.  It’s been a long day, and three hours still separate my passengers and me from home. Near the crest of a hill, a state trooper car comes into view heading east.  I slam on my breaks as it passes and glance at the speedometer. Fuck, I say.  My review mirror confirms my assessment. Break-lights, followed by a decisive U-Turn.

I pull over.

There are three passengers in my car. One, a black woman in her 30s is asleep in the back seat, but the other two, white women in their 50s like me, are wide awake.  I reach into my bag and pull out my wallet as flashing red lights play across the interior of my Subaru Impreza.  Looking out my window at the side mirror, I see a young, female trooper – maybe Latina, maybe white – making her way to my car.

I press the button that lowers my window and say, “I know, I was going too fast.”  This is a strategy; sometimes a cop will issue a warning if you’re polite, if you admit your transgression. This has been my experience. But this time, I’m feeling like the jig is up.

“Where you coming from?” The trooper asks.

“Bard College,” I say, “a writer’s workshop.”

“Where are you headed?” she asks.

“Cortland,” I say.

“Let me see your license and registration.”

I reach across the lap of my friend in the passenger seat, open the glove box, and retrieve my registration and insurance card.

I hand them and my license over.

“I’m going to check your paperwork,” the trooper says, and heads back to her car.

The passenger in the seat next to me, Darlene, is a writer but her alter ego, a visual artist, eggs her on. She points her iPhone at me and begins recording. Because I’ve been the reluctant subject of her whim to photograph, record, and otherwise create and document images many times before, this does not feel strange. I shake my head and laugh.

“It’s okay,” she says, laughing too. “You can tell me to cut it out. I will. I never know, like, when I’m crossing the line.”

Switching gears from silly to mock-serious, Darlene adopts an interview persona – “Tell me, have you ever gotten a speeding ticket before?”

“No,” I say, “I have never gotten a speeding ticket before.”

“What do you think it means that she says she’s going to check out your paperwork?” She asks.

“I think she’s just doing her job,” I say.

Susan, the other 50-something white woman, chimes in from the backseat – “Checking that she’s registered, checking that she’s licensed.”

“She’s licensed?” Says Darlene, “She’s a good citizen?”

“That’s right,” says Susan.

“Are you a good citizen?” Darlene asks me, now laughing again.

Ignoring the question, I say, “Oh crap. So the thing is I’m going to have to come here to court if she actually gives me a ticket.”

“You can’t just mail it in?” asks Darlene.

“No, because if she gives me a ticket for over 15 miles an hour, I have to come to court and try to fight it.”

Darlene asks, “You have to come?”

“Yes,” Susan explains, “because that’s an automatic-“

“Three points,” I interrupt.

“Serious offense,” continues Susan, “so you have to show up.”

“No,” I say, “I can mail it in, but then it’s automatically that number of points on my license. My insurance rates will go up.”

“No, no, that’s what I’m saying,” agrees Susan.

“Oh, you mean if you come you can negotiate it down?” asks Darlene.

“Yes,” Susan and I say at the same time.

“Oh, so you could say `actually…’” Darlene begins, and is interrupted Susan –

“Talk to my brother. He has this down pat.”

“Really? He has it down pat?” asks Darlene.

“He was told by a lawyer to never, ever, ever plead guilty,” Susan says.

“Really?” says Darlene. “So then you could say what? The machinery was faulty?”

Rolling her eyes, Susan says, “He gets them reduced all the time.”

“All the time?” asks Darlene, incredulous.

“And he does get pulled over frequently,” says Susan.

Janita, the black woman in the back seat who I thought was sleeping, laughs.

Susan looks at her and says, “But he doesn’t get tickets. I could write a book.”

“Are you recording this?” Janita asks Darlene.

“Don’t worry, I’m not getting you, ’cause you’re sleeping. That wouldn’t be nice. I don’t know you well enough to do that.”

Darlene stops recording and puts away her phone.

I do get a ticket; 71 in a 55 zone. 

Another 30 miles down the road, we stop to pee. Janita exits the back seat on the passenger side as I exit the driver’s seat. Looking at me across the top of the car she says, “I’m just glad I wasn’t driving.”

Later that night, Darlene messages me the 110 second video with this caption: You think pretty clearly under pressure. Impressive.

I watch that video over and over, my discomfort deepening each time. Shameful is a far more apt description. In this historical moment, on-the-regular, folks of color depend on their cell phones to document violent and too often deadly abuses of police power.  The juxtaposition of that reality to this casual recording, for levity’s sake, of an experience that holds no peril, threatens no lives, is disconcerting. It feels perverse.

I’ve broken the law, and I’m bummed I’ve been caught. I likely possess the power to reduce the consequences, and I’m whining about the inconvenience of exercising this power – Oh crap. So the thing is I’m going to have to come here to court if she actually gives me a ticket.

I can’t watch this video without thinking of Diamond Reynolds who, on July 6, 2016, began a live-stream on Facebook, recording the moments following the shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer, Jeronimo Yanez.

Like me, Castile had reached for his paperwork. Unlike me, he was shot four times for doing so.

In the video of the scene in my Subaru Impreza, my white friends and I are talking in hushed, conspiratorial tones about how to keep my insurance premiums down. In the live-stream inside Castile’s car, Diamond Reynolds is documenting the aftermath of a deadly altercation, repeatedly and calmly assuring Officer Yanez that she is keeping her hands in sight.

I’m 58 and have been pulled over six times in my life, all for moving violations. This is my first ticket. On July 6, 2016, just ten days before his 33rd birthday, Philando Castile was pulled over for a cracked tail light. In the 14 years preceding this final, fatal stop, he had been pulled over 46 times! Of those times, only six were for “observable” violations.[1]

Having reached the age of 57, I will be paying my first traffic fine.  Before reaching the age of 33, Castile had amassed over $6,000 in such fines.[2] This makes me think about the Department of Justice investigation into policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri; an investigation that was prompted by the shooting-death of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.  The investigation found that although African Americans make up only 67% of Ferguson’s population, they account for 85% of traffic stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests.  The Department of Justice also discovered that Ferguson’s City Finance Department encourages issuing citations as a way of increasing operating funds.[3]  Looked at this way, it is not simply a matter of more blacks than whites getting citations and fines; it’s that black folks are actually subsidizing the criminal behaviors of white folks like me.  The five times I was not ticketed for speeding were made up for by people like Castile being ticketed over and over again. 

At the end of my speeding stop, the trooper handed me my ticket and politely explained what I needed to do to take care of it. At the end of Castile’s stop for a broken tail light, he was dead.

As a sociologist and as a white person who knows that whiteness has and continues to structure opportunities and consequences in the United States, a number of questions nag at me. Most of these questions cannot be answered because we don’t collect the sort of data that would be required.  Not collecting such data is one way our racist system of whiteness is reproduced. 

For instance, how likely is my whiteness going to keep me from getting pulled over in the first place?  To know the answer to this, cops would need to keep a record, broken down by race, of how many times they look the other way and let the speeder or the person with the broken tail light go.  Cops do not keep such records. But if Philando Castile and I are in anyway representative, his 46-52 pull-overs in 14 years compared to six pullovers in 40 years suggests my whiteness helps me a lot.

Another question I’d need to answer is how likely is my whiteness going to increase my chances of getting only a warning once I’ve been stopped, like Susan’s brother?  Again, no data are collected to answer this question, but five of the six times I’ve been stopped I’ve been sent off with just a warning. And while gender may shape this some, I’ve also been a passenger on multiple occasions when my partner – a white male, chronic speeder – has been issued only a warning.  Both of my white children, one female and one male, have been stopped more than once for speeding, and each of them has, on at least one occasion, received only a warning. When my white family members have received speeding tickets, they have gone to court and successfully negotiated the charge down to a non-moving violation.  Every single time.

According to the late sociologist C. Wright Mills, in order to understand my own experiences, I need to look beyond my private orbit to the experiences of other white drivers.[4]  When I do this, my white family’s experience seems pretty representative.  According to a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice report, “White drivers were both ticketed and searched at a lower rate than black and Hispanic drivers.”[5] Based on the same report, Washington Post journalist, Christopher Ingraham writes, “Black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than whites; they are more than twice as likely to be subject to police searches as white drivers; and they are nearly twice as likely to not be given any reason for the traffic stop, period.”[6]

White drivers are also less likely than black drivers to be pulled over and ticketed for vehicle defects, like Castile’s broken tail light.[7] This fact cannot be separated from the distribution of wealth in the U.S., where the median wealth of white families is twelve times higher than that of black families.[8] Not all white drivers can afford vehicles with no “defects” like my 2015 Subaru Impreza, but a much greater share of whites than blacks can. 

No one gets up in the morning hoping that at some point during the day they will be the subject of a traffic stop. No one longs to see flashing red lights play across the interior of the car they are in.

But whiteness makes it possible for three white women to ease the discomfort of such a moment by playfully making a video of it, while whiteness compels women like Diamond Reynolds to document a menace to their very existence.

I pled guilty and mailed the ticket in. I was fined $225. I had no problem coming up with the funds. I now have three points on my license. So far, my insurance rate has remained unchanged. On June 16, 2017, 20 days shy of the one year anniversary of Castile’s death, Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges.

[1] Eyder Peralta and Cheryl Corley, “The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile,” National Public Radio, July 15, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/15/485835272/the-driving-life-and-death-of-philando-castile

[2] Ibid.

[3] United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” March 4, 2015, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

[4] C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. #

[5] Lynn Langton and Matthew Durose, “Police Behavior during Traffic and Street Stops, 2011,” United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 2013, revised October 2016, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pbtss11.pdf

[6] Christopher Ingraham, “You Really Can Get Pulled Over for Driving While Black, Federal Statistics Show, The Washington Post, September 9, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/09/09/you-really-can-get-pulled-over-for-driving-while-black-federal-statistics-show/?utm_term=.c0a01594bb54

[7] Ibid.

[8] Janelle Jones, “The Racial Wealth Gap: How African-Americans Have Been Shortchanged Out of the Materials to Build Wealth,” Economic Policy Institute, February 13, 2017, https://www.epi.org/blog/the-racial-wealth-gap-how-african-americans-have-been-shortchanged-out-of-the-materials-to-build-wealth/

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