yet again, i feel my chest tighten, pulse quicken,

knuckles whiten, blood thicken, muscles stiffen.

through shallow breaths i detect the dread stench of

apprehension. i dare not move. my head, immobilized in tension,

avoiding attention, forehead glistens with perspiration

through tight lips, i flip quick prayers and incantations

to avoid observation …

and confrontation.

That’s how I feel each time a police car pulls up behind or beside me at a stoplight. In these moments, I’m not thinking of it as “racial profiling,” the increasingly popular catchphrase used to describe a police practice stemming from a mindset older than the country itself. I feel it on a primal, subverbal level.

The tension is a psychological and physiological response to a phenomenon as real, as palpable, as gravity for black people living in America. If such a widespread fear gripped white folk, we’d no doubt have a slew of monikers for it: Purposeful Persecution Avoidance Syndrome, maybe, or Selective Enforcement Aversion. There’d be counseling groups, reimbursable through HMOs, where my white counterpart could go sit in a big circle with other sufferers, stand up and say, “Hi, my name is Derek. I got pulled over today.”

Not us. When you know your reaction to being pulled over, stopped and questioned could be a matter of life and death, you worry more about life and death. We don’t have circles of sufferers; we have community forums to teach our kids how to save their asses in situations where they’ve done nothing wrong.

the night is black like me, as is the asphalt I’m kissing.

it caresses my cheek roughly while above me the officer’s hissing

commands, my plans for the night now replaced

with concern for my life–be polite– my mind races.

i know the 9’s in his hand, it awaits provocation.

i think, respond in measured tones, diffuse the confrontation,

we’re not who you’re looking for …

i plead our situation

The hows and whys of this psychological phenomenon should really need no explanation. African Americans and other racial minorities are routinely stopped, searched, arrested and incarcerated at rates way out of proportion to our percentage of the population. While roughly 12 percent of the U.S. population, black people make up more than half of those locked up. This is both cause and effect in a cruel Catch-22: Non-whites are perceived to be predisposed to criminality, so law enforcement concentrates interdiction efforts on non-white communities, and the resulting arrest statistics make it appear that the underlying perception is true. In short terms, the cops catch who they look for.

DWB, Driving While Black, is a subset of the larger offense of BWB, Breathing While Black. Being While Black. I certainly didn’t need a car during several episodes I had in my youth of being served and protected. Like the time when I was walking across the University of Maryland campus on my lunch break from a work-study job in the English Department. I was stopped by a cop, who took my driver’s license, wrote down my social-security number and, when challenged, would only say that I “fit the description.”

“What description?” I asked.

“Black guy, about your height, with facial hair.” In the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area that only described a couple of million brothas. I guess that’s why he didn’t have time for my questions; the man had a lot of work to do. As did the officers in a number of similar instances in New Jersey, my home state.

These experiences were made all the more, um, interesting by the fact that they came during years when I was reading history and social-studies books extolling the freedoms that come with living in America. Random stops? Challenges for proof of identification and citizenship? These, the books informed me, were the sorts of things that happened in communist countries, or Nazi Germany, or South Africa under apartheid.

Hmm. Over here, when it’s done by the police, we eventually figure out a name for it–racial profiling–and reluctantly commission studies. And when it’s done by private citizens, we simply call it life.

Back when she was in college, my wife Patricia got involved in one of those deep dorm-room discussions about race relations with this white woman from Tennessee. Jennifer was a freshman who hadn’t seen much of life beyond her hometown, and she simply refused to believe the things that the black women were telling her about their reality–it ran so contrary to what she’d always been told about how things were. Patricia suggested an experiment.

One Saturday morning, Jennifer and Patricia went to the local shopping center, right on the edge of campus. They went to store after store, with Jennifer noting the differences in how they were treated. When she entered a store, most clerks were friendly, issuing smiling “Can I help you”s. Patricia, on the other hand, was met with either challenging glances or cold indifference. Jennifer watched as store detectives and salespeople shadowed her friend from aisle to aisle, waiting for Patricia to steal something, remaining absolutely oblivious to Jennifer’s whereabouts. She could have robbed the places blind with Patricia as the decoy.

Even when speaking the common language of “green”–paying for purchases–they were treated differently. Again, Jennifer got the “Thank you and have a good day” treatment, while Patricia’s change was often dropped from about six inches above her hand by cashiers who apparently thought blackness was contagious.

By the end of this little field trip through the black experience, Jennifer was almost sobbing, burning with feelings of shame, pity and anger. My future wife, however, was matter-of-fact in her assessment. “I just wanted you to see what it was like,” she said, going on to point out that this type of thing was so pervasive that black people had little choice if they wanted to maintain their sanity. You can’t confront everybody, and you can’t let it consume you. “This is background racism,” Patricia told her stunned friend. “I save my energy for dealing with the real stuff.”

Patricia’s social experiment was a small-scale, do-it-yourself version of the testing that many civil-rights agencies use to prove housing and job discrimination. Wherever and whenever I relate the story, I get amens from other black and brown people, whose own realities are, sadly, so similar. A Mexican-born friend was astonished when he appeared in court for a (justified) traffic ticket: Of the hundred-or-so folks waiting in the courthouse for their moment in front of the judge, he counted only half-a-dozen white people. The rest of the people being ground in the wheels of the Just-Us system were various shades of brown.

community center forum, buzzing with

vivid recollections, stern admonitions to listen

to black male “dos” and “do nots.” if you don’t

wanna get shot … if you get arrested … speak slowly

and don’t move, tell the officer before you reach for your wallet

i heard that 10 years ago, but i guess diallo

wasn’t at that forum, didn’t learn that

life lesson

My wife’s life lesson–don’t sweat the small stuff, the “background racism”–contains a challenge. It’s the challenge of not overlooking the bigger issues while you’re surviving by overlooking the smaller ones. A store clerk with a superiority complex has the power to piss me off, to add to my daily stress–but not a whole lot more. A police officer operating off the same conscious or unconscious racial animus is empowered by this society to take my life, or my freedom, at his discretion.

As the stories that follow by Afefe L. Tyehimba and Damien Jackson make clear, the problem is not limited to places like New York or Los Angeles. It’s here. It’s everywhere. And it will take a lot more than a Giuliani-type sensitivity card, reminding officers to say they’re sorry for that unnecessary stop-and-frisk procedure, to make a dent in a phenomenon so ingrained in our culture. What can get at it?

Maybe those behind the “accountability” movements that have targeted public-school teachers could be convinced to pay as much attention to another set of public servants with a tremendous potential to affect Americans’ quality of life–and longevity of life. But then again, considering who’s behind the accountability movement, that doesn’t seem likely.

No, those of us with reason to cringe at the sight of blue in our rearview will have to force the issue. Among other things, we have to push for more accountability measures, like those recently aimed at North Carolina’s highway patrol. We have to target our efforts at local law-enforcement, too, since that’s where most of the deal goes down.

It’s true that holding the police accountable for their treatment of non-whites will make some well-intentioned officers a bit tense and apprehensive. But not as tense and apprehensive as people caught breathing while black. EndBlock