Living to tell the story of driving while white

Mike Rivage-Seul
Mike Rivage-Seul

On a recent Monday my wife, Peggy, and I were stopped by a police officer on our way back from a doctor’s appointment in Grand Rapids, Mich. We had nearly arrived at our summer lake house when I saw the red and blue flashing lights behind me.

Of course, I pulled over immediately onto the road’s gravel shoulder. I rolled down the driver’s side window (the only one that works dependably) of our 1992 Volvo. I suspect the officer was intrigued by our beat-up car with its out-of-state Kentucky license plate. I mean, this may have been a profiled stop.

As the officer approached from behind, I reached into my back pocket for my wallet and license. Doing so, I couldn’t help thinking of the difference between me and black drivers in similar circumstances.

For them, reaching into a back pocket as an officer approaches might be fatal. So might traveling in a decrepit car far from one’s own neighborhood.

“May I see your license and registration, sir?” the young officer requested.

I fumbled through my wallet, and it took some time before my license surfaced. The policeman waited patiently without comment. Finally, I handed him my Kentucky license. From the passenger’s side, Peggy found our registration. However, it was from 2015.

Somehow, the 2016 registration had not made its way into the glove compartment. Besides that, our proof-of-insurance certificate had expired.

“That’s all right,” the officer said politely. “I’ll just check on my computer. This might take a few minutes. By the way, did you know you were traveling at 68 miles per hour? The speed limit here is 55.”

“No, sir” I replied. “My wife and I were deep in conversation, and I didn’t realize how fast we were going.” (I didn’t dare tell him that the speedometer on our car doesn’t work.) I also hoped he wouldn’t see that the covering over our right-front turn signal was busted out. I’m sure that was some sort of violation, too.

A few minutes later, the officer returned.

“Everything checks out,” he said. “I’m not going to give you a citation this time. But I’d get that paperwork up to date if I were you.”

We thanked the officer profusely and went on our way.

Afterward, I couldn’t help thinking how different our story was from that of Sandra Bland, who ended up dead after failing to signal a lane change in Waller County, Texas.

It was different too from Philando Castile’s in Falcon Heights, Minn. Castile was stopped for a broken tail light. After informing an officer that he was carrying a licensed gun, Castile was shot when he obeyed the cop’s directions to produce his driver’s license from the wallet in his back pocket.

Bland and Castile were black. I, of course, am not.

But consider my “crimes”, each of which have led to police shootings of blacks: speeding, outdated registration, expired proof of insurance; broken turn signal light; malfunctioning speedometer; driving a beat-up car far from my own neighborhood in a predominantly white community, and reaching into my back pocket after being stopped by the police.

Thankfully, I was not guilty of “driving while black.” So, unlike the overwhelming experience of black residents of, for instance, Ferguson, Mo., I received no interrogation, no harsh words, no citation, no fine, no searching, no arrest, no summons to appear in court, no resulting lost days of employment, no threat of police violence.

And besides, I have lived to tell the story.

And this in a country where compared to white drivers, African-Americans are 31 percent more likely to be pulled over, 81 percent more likely not to be given a reason for it, and 174 percent more likely to be searched.


Mike Rivage-Seul of Berea is a retired college professor.