My column about Ron Sims being pulled over eight times by the police was greeted with an avalanche of white delusion.
When I wrote that Ron Sims had been pulled over eight times by police, usually for no apparent reason, I didn’t get into a lot of the details because I figured most readers already accepted that Driving While Black was a thing.
Oh man, was I ever wrong about that.
The New York Times recently ran a column about the phenomenon of “white delusion” — the idea that through history we whites often don’t see a problem when it comes to race. This is true even when confronted with uncomfortable facts or anecdotes.
My story about Sims set off an avalanche of white delusion.
Some readers simply refused to believe it. Others denounced it for being an anecdote and demanded statistics and data. Readers came up with all manner of reasons why Ron Sims, the former King County executive with a clean driving record, might be pulled over repeatedly in his own neighborhood.
Police were probably just looking for wanted criminals who matched Sims’ description, some said. Wrote one: “If a crime was committed near where Ron Sims was driving, and the suspect was described as a black man driving a vehicle similar to the vehicle Sims was driving, wouldn’t it make sense for a cop to pull Sims over?”
Maybe. But Sims is a 68-year-old grandfather. Plus, eight times?
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Another wrote that police pull over black drivers more because blacks commit more crimes.
“Black Crime Matters,” one wrote. “The problem clearly is that there’s far too much black crime, and to blame it on racism is beyond ridiculous.”
Blacks as a group do commit some types of crime at higher rates than whites. But why is that Sims’ burden to bear? He’s no more responsible for it than you or me.
Others wrote that police probably pull over everybody in Sims’ neighborhood more, because it’s in the south end where crime rates are higher. While another reader, in Kirkland, conducted his own experiment. He drove around for a couple of hours and found he couldn’t tell the races of drivers in other cars. So he concluded it’s impossible for the police to be biased in a traffic stop — meaning Sims’ story is just unhappy coincidence.
For the record, the latest national stats, from 2011, show blacks were pulled over at a 31-percent higher rate than whites. Native Americans were stopped at a 53 percent higher rate than whites. These are well-known disparities, though proving what causes them has been elusive.
But then on Thursday, came another anecdote. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, one of two African Americans in the Senate, told of his seven traffic stops by police. He echoed Sims in that most of his stops had no apparent purpose.
Sims wrote in response to my column that none of his stops were major incidents, but the cumulative weight of them “seeps deep into your pores.” Scott called it “damaging to your soul.”
I was particularly struck that Scott, a conservative Republican, addressed white delusion head on:
“I simply ask you this: Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, does not mean it does not exist … It does not make it disappear. It simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable.”
He denounced people who “search so hard to explain away injustice” as damaging to the entire premise of America.
Delusion isn’t just a white thing — we’re all prone to assuming our own experiences are broadly shared.
It’s also important to note that neither Sims nor Scott called the police racist. The pattern of stops could have a range of causes, from prejudice to profiling to institutional inertia to cultural misunderstanding.
But the point is that here are two men, both successes in the white-dominated political world, one a left-winger in Seattle, the other a right-winger from the South. Yet their Driving While Black stories, told at this seemingly late date of 50 years after the civil rights movement, are eerily the same.
It’s only we white people who get the luxury to wave this away. Just recognizing that would be a profound step of progress.