LeVar Burton Explains It All For Us When It Comes to “Driving While Black”
It’s the kind of painful thing that would make anyone of color despair of acceptance as full human beings and Americans. Even in the 21st century, we still have a long way to go.
Today, during an interview with CNN, actor-director LeVar Burton, 56, known for roles like Kunta Kinte in the Roots miniseries, and as the differently abled Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and co-founder of Reading Rainbow Kidz, explained how he follows his own protocol when he is profiled and stopped by local cops or California Highway Patrol officers.
Listen, I’m gonna be honest with you, and this is a practice I engage in every time I’m stopped by law enforcement. And I taught this to my son who is now 33 as part of my duty as a father to ensure that he knows the kind of world in which he is growing up. So when I get stopped by the police, I take my hat off and my sunglasses off, I put them on the passenger’s side, I roll down my window, I take my hands, I stick them outside the window and on the door of the driver’s side because I want that officer to be relaxed as possible when he approaches my vehicle. And I do that because I live in America.
This is not the first time that LeVar Burton has made headlines regarding his relations with law enforcement. In 1988, Burton was profiled by narcotics officers near San Jose, California who saw him wearing a head bandanna and a street outfit while driving a BMW (thanks to his hefty paychecks from ST-TNG) and concluded that the actor was a dope dealer. He was “apprehended” with guns drawn at a gas station, with the cops shouting for his ID.
CNN newsman Don Lemon and anti-racism activist Tim Wise are also included in the above video. Wise, who once lived in New Orleans, gave a comparable experience to Burton’s.
Author Tim Wise, on the other hand, recalled that as a 23-year-old he once locked himself outside of his car. While he was trying to break into his car with a coat-hangar, he was approached by a police officer. Rather than question why Wise was attempting to break into a vehicle, the officer casually informed him he was “breaking into the car the wrong way” and offered to help him.
“The cop was trying to help me break in,” Wise remarked. “Now, there is not a black man in this country, 23 years of age, for whom that would have been the reaction… Basically, what my mom told me was, ‘Be nice to cops.’ She didn’t say, ‘Don’t move your hands because you’re going to get shot.’”
Kinda proves my point, made on other posts about the excesses of law enforcement, that cops pump themselves up far too much expecting that every person of color—even women of color—is going to be armed and dangerous when the very opposite is true. Even Mayor Bloomberg thinks that there are far too few “stops and frisks” when crime has gone down in New York exponentially. Why should he continue to support such a racist program when it is bound to go down in the courts?
In 2011, the New York Police department made more stops of young black men than the entire population of young black men in New York City. And while police stops continue overwhelmingly against blacks and Hispanics, stops of these minorities are half as likely to garner weapons, compared to stops of whites. Just last week, the Department of Justice released a two-year investigation of the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department that reveals egregious and disproportionate police targeting of blacks and Hispanics. This racially skewed policing starts early with high rates of suspension and disciplinary infraction arrests among school children, and ends with 1 in 15 black men in prison – many of whom have disproportionately longer sentences.
That last one, about children being suspended and tossed out of school and even arrested by law enforcement and thrown in jail for any infraction, shows a stunning preoccupation with criminalizing children—and mostly children of color—in order to weed out and identify “troublemaking” individuals whose disciplinary records will follow them everywhere and may perhaps ruin college or military plans.
Predictably, the get-tough policies enacted in the early 1990s are much tougher on youth of color than on whites. Each year 15 percent of African American students are suspended, compared to the 5 percent of white students. In addition, only one in 1,000 white students are expelled, compared to one in 200 African American students.
“Poor black students are suspended at three times the rate of white students, a disparity not fully explained by differences in income or behavior,” according to a 2010 report by the Advancement Project, a policy, communications and legal action group in Washington, D.C.
“Youth who are suspended repeatedly are dropping out of schools at very high levels.”
This two-decade cycle of suspending, expelling and arresting young people has been described by critics as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” essentially the criminalizing of young people for what many consider to be normal adolescent behavior. In addition, the nonstop flow of low-level juvenile cases is overloading juvenile court dockets, filling detention facilities, and worsening racial and ethnic disparities.
And the infractions could be as minuscule as falling asleep, burping, arguing with another student, and asking permission from a teacher to use a knife to cut fruit for lunch.
The reason why I list all this is that everything is connected, from the pipeline to prison controversy with American schoolchildren, to LeVar Burton’s strategy not to cop an attitude with cops who may be profiling him and who may be asking for trouble. It’s just all so wretchedly familiar and so unnecessary, and a long way from being eradicated.
- Reading Rainbow Host LeVar Burton’s New Lesson: How Not to Get Shot by the Cops (colorlines.com)
- Race Matters: LeVar Burton Reveals Personal Ritual to Avoid Becoming Police Victim (atlantablackstar.com)
- LeVar Burton — ‘Reading Rainbow’ Host Rear-Ended by a Cop Car (tmz.com)
- Reading Rainbow Celebrates 30th Anniversary with Its Highly Successful App Releasing On Amazon’s Kindle Fire (prweb.com)