Simply being ... while black


To the editor:

In 2015, my husband and I packed our dog Gidian into our SUV and headed up to the Catskills for the Martin Luther King weekend — two middle-aged people with an elderly dog.

We took Route 17 toward Monticello. As a careful driver — and to keep from having speeders drive up my rear — I stayed in the slow lane. Which was my mistake.

As we rode peacefully westward, I suddenly realized I was being pursued by the state police. I pulled over, confused by what I’d done wrong. Turns out I didn’t “move over,” and had driven past a traffic stop.

This is something I should not have done, but which I didn’t think not to do, because moving over is impossible on busy New York City highways.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the object of the patrolwoman’s attention. Although I was the driver of the car and responsible for the violation, the patrolwoman told me to shut my window as she was concerned for my comfort. She moved over to the passenger side and instructed my husband to lower his window. She then interrogated my husband, who is black.

She asked him for his license. He answered he didn’t have his license and wasn’t driving. She asked him whether he was headed to the casino, and what was the purpose of his trip. Then she asked him if he had any outstanding warrants.

It was at this moment that the air in the car turned to ice, and not because of the winter weather.

Without talking to each other, we both understood the true meaning of this traffic stop. We kept our cool because we knew that righteous indignation could mean the patrolwoman would make my husband get out of the car. We knew that my husband could end up arrested for “resisting arrest,” a catch-all excuse for detaining people who haven’t really committed any crimes.

The other alternative was horrifying, but in a world where riding in a car while being black is illegal, we knew not to hedge our bets.

After what seemed like an interminable time, we were released, and drove back onto the highway.

It was at this point that my husband told me that the patrolwoman had kept her hand on her gun the entire time she was talking to him.

In the end, what saved my husband was that, while riding in a car while black, he was riding with me, a white woman.

Without my white privilege, the end result might have been a tragic one.

While grateful that we were able to drive away, I was also saddened by the injustice and humiliation to which my husband was subjected.

I realize that my husband, a black man, has spent his entire life being stopped by police for the crime of being himself, and that he always has to anticipate the next time it would happen.

This tragic truth is deeply affecting to me, but it can never equal that of my husband’s experience, rooted in his true crime of being while black.

Stephanie Coggins

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Stephanie Coggins,