Long before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I’ve had uncomfortable conversations with my son about what it means to be a Black man in Philadelphia. As we witness more injustices against Black people, the list grows of what we are not allowed to do for fear of “fitting a description.” From high school to campaigning for City Council, I have received different treatment behind the wheel from officers than my white counterparts.

I am part of the 72% of Black Philadelphians who have been pulled over while driving and part of the 90% of those drivers who are not pulled over due to a public safety risk but a trivial code violation that does not even warrant writing a citation. I am part of the majority who have been pulled over simply for driving while Black.

But a Black man who is pulled over won’t tell you about these statistics — they’ll tell you about the way they felt. They’ll tell you about that pit in their stomach that forms after they see the police car follow their car for a couple blocks. They talk about that eye contact they avoid in hopes of not making themselves more of a target. I know these feelings well. I’ve been pulled over as an educator, a political candidate, a government employee, and even after winning the Democratic nomination.

One incident that sticks out occurred a few years ago while on the way home from basketball practice. I was working in the city controller’s office at this time — I point this out because I received a badge in this position. I was driving with my nephew and a family friend, three young Black men, riding through Kensington down Front Street. I had been pulled over in that same area multiple times and have been pulled over there since.

An officer pulled me over, and after he requested it I handed him my license and registration. I, unsolicited, showed the officer my city badge to reinforce that I was not a threat. To which the officer apologized and cited a broken taillight as the reason for the stop, and that I should get it fixed.

After driving away, I used this teachable moment to show the boys my badge and explain that the badge reassured the officer that I was no threat, but these boys had no badges, they had to behave with extra respect and compliance to reinforce the lack of a threat.

The next day, I went to the auto shop to get my light fixed to avoid a future motor vehicle stop for the same issue. The mechanic was dumbfounded. There was never anything wrong with my taillight. We had no idea what possible code violation that officer could have spotted — besides a driver who “fit the description.”

My point is not that this officer was bad; I respect law enforcement and want them to do their job of keeping our neighborhoods safe. But they’re operating within a broken system that unjustly discriminates against people of color.

Black drivers are twice as likely to be searched as white drivers but are 35% less likely to be found with drugs or weapons. And approximately 90% of these stops are for code violations that have little to do with public safety, such as tinted windows or having a light out. When people who look like me have consistent interactions like this with law enforcement, it promotes distrust between officers and the communities they are meant to protect.

We need a system that better uses law enforcement officers’ time to keep our communities safe from real threats, not expired car registrations. We need a system in which all Philadelphians are treated equally and no one is pulled over for “fitting a description.”

Driving while Black is not new nor as extreme as some of the grave injustices we’ve witnessed in 2020. But it is another example of a system that is working against Black Americans. We should be making life better for all Philadelphians rather than putting up roadblocks to equality and success. I am sick of having these same conversations with my son about what Black people can and cannot do, what is safe and what we have to fear. Let’s change the conversation.

Isaiah Thomas is a councilmember at-large representing the entire city of Philadelphia.

(1) comment


Well said, Councilman! Thank you. Racial profiling spurs mistrust and fear, making policing more dangerous and difficult. Officers and the people they are sworn to serve will all be better off if policing is fairer and less biased.

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