Driving While Black

Let me tell you about a recent case I had.

My client is a young black kid in college.  He’s never been in trouble before in his life. His dad is a successful businessman.

Being a good kid, he was allowed to borrow Dad’s expensive car to hang out with his friends. He did.

On the way home, he gets pulled over by a cop, who cites as the reason an “obscured license plate,” meaning it was covered in mud or something and the officer couldn’t read it. They’re allowed to stop to make sure it isn’t a false plate or something. (Actually, these days, cops can pull you over for just about anything, but that’s a topic for another day.)

My client is cooperative and polite.police car

The officer then says to my client that he wants to search the car. Thanks to a recent decision by a Republican-run Pennsylvania Supreme Court,*  you have no privacy rights in your car and the police can pretty much search whenever they want to. So my client, not wanting to cause a fuss, agrees. The officer finds a small amount of marijuana, left there by one of my client’s friends.

It should be noted that the officer detected no sign that my client was under the influence of marijuana — because he wasn’t. My client says he never smokes, and I have no reason to doubt that. Officers look for things like the smell of burnt marijuana, glassy eyes, and you know, the kind of way stoned people act. Had the officer thought there was any sign of that he would have taken my client in for a blood test and then, if there was a positive result, charged him with Driving Under the Influence.

So my client gets charged with Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana.

He continues on his way home.

As he nears home, he gets pulled over again. This time, this new officer says he’s pulling him over because the windows were too harshly tinted. Same thing happens — he doesn’t suspect my client of having committed any crime but demands a search anyway, and finds a grinder that the first cop missed. Now my client gets charged with Possession of Drug Paraphernalia and Possession of Marijuana (for the few seeds found in the grinder).

Notice that the first cop never mentioned tinted windows and the second cop never mentioned an obscured license plate. Note as well that my client was never charged with the supposed reasons for the stops.

Now, for all my white friends: How often has this happened to you? How often are you pulled over for tinted windows or an obscured license plate or something else that is solely based on the officer’s opinion? A light out is an objective thing that makes sense for a traffic stop; how much tint is too much? How much mud is too much? Those kinds of things are judgment calls.

In my job as a defense attorney, I see those kinds of stops all the time, and almost always for young, dark-skinned men in expensive cars. In fact, as I have written about before, my Office Manager’s husband — a dark-skinned Hispanic businessman — gets pulled over probably once every two or three months for these kinds of reasons. He stands by and waits while the officer searches his car and always finds nothing and then he either gets a warning or a minor ticket that is hardly worth fighting over.

And many of my clients have similar stories, the worst of which are when the police find money and no other sign of criminal activity but keep the money because “it must have come from drugs!” Often, the cost of hiring an attorney to fight to get the money back is more than the amount of money taken, so ca-ching! Free money for the police fund. (That’s where a lot of those police tanks and other military gear comes from, you know.)

Now, are all police profiling black drivers? Oh, of course not. But when you see it happen as often as those of us in the criminal justice system see, you realize that there’s something going on here.

Once I was discussing a case in chambers with a judge who said that the police clearly knew what they were doing since she sees so many cases where drugs have been found during these searches. “That’s because you never hear about the stops where nothing is found,” I countered. “It looks like 100% of all searches are successful to you, because those are the only cases that come before you.” To her credit, she nodded, as if she had never considered that fact before.

And I think that’s where a lot of white people are — they don’t personally see it, so they think it doesn’t happen.

Now back to my case: There were two different DAs assigned to this case because they happened in two different jurisdictions, but I got them to talk to each other. They saw what was going on agreed to give my client probation without a verdict — he doesn’t plead guilty, and as long as he stays out of trouble and doesn’t test positive for any drugs (not a problem for him) the matter will eventually be dismissed and wiped from his record.

And boy, has he learned not to let those particular friends ride in his car any more.


*The good news is that thanks to some of these judges now being forced to resign due to various scandals, including one judge who is now in jail, a bunch of Democrats were elected to replace them. So this policy may change in the future.

Jesus, Santa, and Hermione Granger: All white!

Here we go again.

It was only last year that Megyn Kelly from Fox News was insisting that not only is Santa Claus white (despite being based on St. Nicholas, who was from modern-day Turkey) but so is Jesus (who was a Jewish lad from the middle east).

This Christmas, people are complaining that a new play about the Harry Potter gang is wrong because it casts Hermione as a black woman.

Ron, Hermione, and Harry as adults.  Look, they got the teeth right.

Ron, Hermione, and Harry as adults. Look, they got the teeth right.

Hello? Hermione is fictional! She’s a made-up people! She doesn’t really exist! (And anyway, J.K. Rowling pointed out that at no time is Hermione’s race mentioned in the books — only that she has “brown eyes and frizzy hair.” And then “large front teeth.” And there’s another mention in a later book that talks about her “looking brown.” Seriously.)

Not all of the complaints about this are from racist bigots. Sometimes the biggest complainers are the fanboys who get an idea in their heads and decide that X version of a fictional character is the only one possible, and any variation is blasphemy. “Superman can’t be black!” they scream, ignoring the fact that Superman isn’t even human — he could be green and polka dotted (although that might make his secret identity a bit tougher to hide).

Sometimes the race of a character matters in a fictional story. I’m currently working on a steampunk novel featuring Teddy Roosevelt. The main character is a black woman, and that is very important to the plotline, since the story takes place at a time when neither women nor blacks had any real power.

But Hermione? Why not? Isn’t one of the biggest themes in the Harry Potter novel about how we should accept people for who they are and not discriminate? The bad guys were all concerned with “purity of blood,” remember? Isn’t it obvious that the race of their fellow students didn’t matter to the Potter gang? Before hooking up with Ginny, Harry had dates with Cho Chang (Chinese ancestry) and Pavarti Patil (Indian ancestry), right? And didn’t Rowlings have a pretty diverse cast (well, for something taking place in England)? Okay, enough — my inner nerd is escaping.

Re-interpretations of fictional works happen all the time. Geez, look at how many times Shakespeare is done in a new way. Fictional characters can change race and sex and everything.

Which, coincidentally, brings me to another book I am editing now: Alternate Sherlocks — a collection of short stories featuring some pretty well-known authors — with Sherlock Holmes in new versions: as a female child, as an alien, as a vampire, as a parrot …

I sure hope that the speciests don’t come after me for that one.


I didn’t kill the natives or enslave the blacks

Every once in a while, I’ll see one of these memes that say things like “Your people killed mine” or “Your people enslaved mine.”


No, I didn’t.

My ancestors came over to America long after slavery was ended. They had nothing to do with American Indians being killed.

And even if they did, so what? I had nothing to do with it — I wasn’t even born yet.

Taking blame or credit for things your ancestors did always seemed silly to me, and it’s one of the biggest problems that the world faces. There are still people in the Middle East fighting over things that happened 1000 years ago.

Yes, the native Americans were treated terribly. Yes, many blacks were held in slavery in our country. Absolutely. I am not saying “get over it” — far from that, because we should always remember what happened to make sure it never happens again. Instead, I am saying that we should stop identifying each other as “part of that group” (either the oppressed or the oppressors at the time) and stop prejudging people that way.

Isn’t that the root of all discrimination? Assuming that if someone is from a certain racial or ethnic group, they are your enemy?

Obviously, if someone is a part of a present, current-day group they specifically joined and identify with, that is completely different. Someone waving a Confederate flag is pretty easily identified as a jerk. If your bumper sticker says “Obama go back to Kenya” yeah, I know you’re not my friend. That’s not “pre-judging” someone, that’s “judging them based on the evidence presented.”

Prejudice refers to judging people based on things they have no control over (race, sex, country of origin, sexual orientation, age, etc.) And it’s especially true when you judge them over things that happened before they were even born.

Fly that Flag as Long as You Don’t Mind Being Thought Of as a Racist

People who continue to display the Confederate flag fall into three categories: racists, assholes who don’t mind being insulting, or the willfully ignorant.

The first category is simple: This is a flag that has, from the moment it was sewn, stood for slavery and racial inequality. After the Civil War ended, it was not seen again for many years — until racists in the 50s resurrected it as their symbolic flag in their fight against integrating the schools. (And it wasn’t even the real Confederate flag!) The KKK adopted it soon thereafter and racists everywhere winked and nodded at each other when they saw that flag on each other’s cars and clothing. They know what it means.content

The second category are those people who know that people associate it with racism and are insulted by it but don’t care. Why? Because at the root of it, they’re just assholes. There will always be assholes. There are assholes on the left, too, and there’s no cure for it, apparently.

The third category is the one we can deal with:  The willfully ignorant. I say “willfully” because the facts are out there, but they are refusing to accept them (in much the same way people deny evolution or climate change). Some of my southern friends fall into this category. (I grew up in Richmond, home of the Confederacy). I don’t think they’re racists; they just are sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “La la la I can’t hear you” about the evidence.

First of all, understand that “ignorance” is not an insult. Everyone is ignorant about something. I am ignorant of particle physics, brain surgery, and fashion. But ignorance is something that can be cured, through education. It’s only something to be ashamed of if you are willfully ignorant and insist on holding a viewpoint while refusing to educate yourself.

When I said this on my Facebook page, I had a huge reaction that I did not expect. Allow me to summarize the arguments people gave and my responses:

But not everyone agrees that the flag symbolizes racism.

Those people who deny that are fooling themselves. They’re not facing reality. To pretend that that flag means something innocent and pure is to ignore (a) what it has meant since the day it was created; and (b) what the vast majority of Americans think it means. You can’t take a symbol and magically make it something nice.

You could fly a swastika and say that it’s an ancient symbol used by American Indians and be absolutely correct, but that’s not what it means now.

That’s the distinction. You don’t get to wave a wand and say “Poof! This flag no longer means what it once did!” Society picks meanings. You don’t get to choose your own meaning. Americans know what that flag means. Those who embrace it and claim otherwise are being intellectually dishonest or are willfully ignorant.

“Nuh uh, it means something else” is not a really strong argument.

No, that flag stands for the fight for freedom.

This one always gets me — the war was fought for “freedom.” The freedom to own other people as slaves. It was fought for “state’s rights” — the right to own other people. It was fought for “economic issues” — like the right to use slaves to make the economy work.

It all boils down to people wanting to hold other people as slaves. Any other interpretation is a whitewashing of history.

The flag stands for Southern Pride.

You want to honor “Southern pride”? Pick another symbol for southern pride other than the flag of treason, slavery, and intolerance, because that flag means you’re proud of those things.

And why don’t the north, east, and west have a flag for their own regional pride?

No, the only part of the country that thinks it needs a symbol to separate itself from the rest of the United States is the part that used that same symbol to try to leave the United States.

The flag stands for those Southerners who sadly died in the Civil War, many of whom did not necessarily support slavery.

Just like many Germans fought in WWII but who were themselves somewhat innocent victims of their leaders. But we don’t fly the Nazi flag to honor them.

Look — this flag stands for racism. There is a reason the Klan is angry about its removal from South Carolina’s state house. There is a reason they are holding rallies about it. There is a reason black churches are burning all over South Carolina. It’s not because of “freedom.”

Even when I was a kid growing up in the south in the 60s, I knew what that flag meant. None of my close friends ever wore anything with that flag, and at no time did I ever say to myself “Geez, I really like the south so I’m going to fly a flag that is usually associated with a cartoon drawing of an old confederate soldier saying the south will rise again.”

It’s not about the flag; it’s about freedom of speech!

This is a red herring. No one is trying to ban the flag (as I previously pointed out). You have every right, under the 1st Amendment, to display that flag. And I have every right under that same Amendment to criticize you for it. Freedom of Speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of that speech.

You probably want to ban “the Dukes of Hazzard” too!

I don’t want to ban anything. It’s just a TV show that represents the attitudes of the times. We can’t erase history, nor should we deny it. People who claim the flag isn’t about racism — they’re the ones trying to rewrite history.

The United States flag hasn’t always stood for good things either, you know.

The American flag has stood for things good and bad; and we are constantly fighting to make things better and right the wrongs of the past. The American flag stood for freedom but admittedly only freedom for white men at first, but we changed that. That flag stands for progress and has been used by groups fighting for their equality for hundreds of years.

The Confederate flag, on the other hand, stood for slavery and discrimination from the start — and still does. That’s why it was used by bigots in their fight against integration and equality and why the KKK flies it today. There has been no civil progress made with that flag as its symbol. That flag has never been the flag of equality or justice and has never been used by any group wanting to expand rights and make the US a better place.

No matter what category you may fit into, if you are displaying that flag, people are going to assume you’re a racist. Do you really want the KKK on your side? If they support it and are using it as their symbol, does that make you reconsider in the slightest? Do you really want people to think you agree with them?

That’s what the flag means, no matter how some people have tried to rewrite history. If they don’t think you’re a racist, they’re going to think you’re an asshole or willfully ignorant. None of those categories are flattering.

So don’t go whining and complaining when that happens.

Accomplishments without riots

It wasn’t that long ago that acts of pure racism brought about riots in Baltimore and Ferguson. I condemned them, and wrote that those things were counter productive.

unity march

Charleston Unity March

“When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out,” said John Lennon.

Many of my liberal friends attacked me for that position, arguing that sometimes violence was needed to bring about change in America. I still disagreed with them.

The latest attack in South Carolina led to the victims’ families forgiving the shooter, asking for peace, and asking for understanding. They used the occasion to point out how harmful, insulting, and contributing the Confederate flag flying over their courthouse is, and they said it should be taken down. And there were no riots.

And you know what? It’s working. This may have been the tipping point that finally makes that insulting flag be treated with the same attitude in which we now view the “n” word. And it’s made many people look at how harmful it is to tolerate racist symbols and actions.

If the people of South Carolina had rioted it would not have been as successful.

And that’s because the people of America are good people. We want to do good things, and we want to help people who deserve to be helped. But when instead Americans see rioters and looters, it does the opposite; it makes people say, right or wrong, that they don’t deserve our help.

No, it isn’t; it’s the flag of the Ku Klux Klan

I’m not going to waste space here today trying to convince people that the Confederate flag you see flying all over the place is the flag of treason and slavery — you know it is, and the people who fly it know it is. That’s why they fly it. Oh, they may say it’s about “southern heritage” but I never see southern liberals or blacks flying that flag, only racists or people who are are so clueless that they have been misled by racists.  It’s no more a flag of southern pride than the swastika is a symbol of German pride.

But the real fact is that the flag — which only came into being during the treasonous rebellion — isn’t even the real flag that flew over the Confederacy.

flagsNo, indeed. This Tennessee flag was the one adopted by the Ku Klux Klan after the war to support their attempts to keep the purpose of the war alive — the subjugation (and murder) of fellow Americans. It’s the flag of racist, treasonous, evil people who, I might add, also fought against anyone who wasn’t a Christian.

When you display that flag today, you are saying you agree with them. You are showing your support for slavery, prejudice, and hatred.

No, no, no. You don’t get to decide what that flag means. You don’t get to say “Yeah, for everyone else it means hatred but for me it means something else.”  If you have that argument, then allow me to shoot you the middle finger. Oh, sorry, were you insulted? Well, for me, the middle finger means something entirely different. What do you mean, I don’t get to define what it means?

Just kidding of course. My middle finger to you means exactly what you think it does.

Hey, look! A thug!


That thug George Zimmerman has been involved in yet another violent shooting. The criminal can’t go a year without getting arrested or getting into some sort of illegal activity involving a gun, can he? Clearly he is just a stain on society and .. what’s that?

Oh, my bad. I forgot.

The word “thug” has been co-opted by Fox News, and is used only for black people who are violent or who are the victims of violence or protest against violence or are black (did I mention that already)?

Seriously, here’s my challenge: Find a white person Fox has called a thug. (Hey, I’d love to be proven wrong…)

Grunt! Oog! Obamacare bad because written by women and minorities!

Me just caveman lawyer. Your modern world confuses and frightens me. But me know one thing:  Obamacare bad because written by white women and minorities.

At least three of these people will probably disagree with the idea that women don't understand the Constitution.

At least three of these people will probably disagree with the idea that women don’t understand the Constitution.

This, almost literally, is what the chief lawyer who argued recently before the Supreme Court about Obamacare said.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said that this law was different because it was written by “white women and minorities.”  If you can understand why that makes it different from any other law, please enlighten me, but apparently, to Attorney Michael Carvin, that makes it suspect and clearly unconstitutional.  As we all know, we need white men making these decisions about our laws.

Hey, if nothing else, the fact that the people who hired him see nothing wrong with this statement tells you what kind of people are behind this latest attempt to overturn the will of the majority.

Blaming Alcohol for your Bigotry

I didn’t have a sip of alcohol until I was way into my 20s. Even today, I’m not sure I’ve ever been “drunk” (although with legal alcohol levels so low for drunk drivers, I may have been). I’ve certainly never had a hangover. Mostly, when I drink, I fall asleep.

One of the reasons I didn’t drink when I was younger was because I saw people drunk and I was not impressed. They’d say things they’d later regret, they’d get into arguments, they’d become difficult, and then they’d throw up on the front lawn. I couldn’t see what was appealing about any of that. (Mind you, I was also a nerd who didn’t swear, either, so I guess that makes sense.)*  frat10n-3-web

From what I can see, alcohol doesn’t turn you into Mr. Hyde, with a completely new personality. Alcohol releases your inhibitions, and the part of your brain that says “Hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea” goes to sleep while you decide that skateboarding down the stairs nude would be a wonderful experience.

I bring this up because I’m tired of people saying terrible things and then blaming the alcohol. The latest involves those frat boys who were caught singing a racist song on the bus. Yeah, they’re sorry now — sorry they got caught doing it. And of course, they’re blaming the alcohol. If it hadn’t have been for the alcohol, they never would have done that!

Yeah, they just would have thought it, instead.

I am absolutely positive that if you got me drunk, you would never in a million years hear me say something racist. Oh, I’m sure I’d say other stupid things, because that’s what alcohol does, but I won’t all-of-a-sudden turn into someone I’m not. You won’t hear me insulting gays and minorities and women, but you will probably hear me insult conservatives, bigots, and religious leaders because hey, I do that now sober.  I’ll just be louder and more obnoxious about it.

I mean, I’ve seen my friends get really drunk and curse and scream at racists, because that’s who they are. The alcohol allows them to say things they might have never said otherwise.

So to those kids on the bus: We should all thank the alcohol for allowing us to see you as you really are, you racist fratholes.


*Here’s where people say “What do you mean “was a nerd”?

There are exceptions

I love this quote, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.


A friend criticized the quote, pointing out that it should have mentioned exceptions:  Some protesters were indeed anti-police, for instance.

Ironically, that was the point of the original quote, wasn’t it?  You shouldn’t take the exceptions (racist police) to imply that all police are bad any more than you should take the exception (violent protesters) to imply that all protesters are bad.

If we have to add “there are always exceptions” to everything we say our conversations will be unwieldy and ultimately not very informative. (Of course, not every conversation. There are always exceptions.)