Just as the light turned green, I was blinded by the officer’s floodlights bursting in from the left side of my car. Unfamiliar with what that meant I proceeded on with traffic as my friends in the car ahead crossed the intersection. Then, he flashed his sirens and instructed me to pull over. I immediately complied, making my way over to the shoulder lane and waited to find out what the problem was.
As the Nassau County officer, who happened to be White, approached the driver’s side of my vehicle I rolled down the window and he immediately hit me with, “Why were you playing with your headlights?”
All I was doing was waiting at a red light listening to music with my friends so I had no idea what he was talking about. “I didn’t touch any lights,” I replied, completely baffled.
“I saw you.”
“But…,” I caught myself, as I heard a similar voice as Tyler Perry’s mother’s go off in my head: Don’t give this man any reason to accuse you of being anything other than a Black man driving in Long Island.
The officer asked for my license and registration, which I slowly retrieved for him. While he was running my information through the system, my friends and I spent the next five minutes trying to figure out what we did to prompt this traffic stop. For the life of us, we couldn’t figure out what that was, other than being Black while driving.
When the patrolman finally returned, he handed me my documents with a warning, “A car is not a toy, Mr. Samuel.”
I clenched my jaw and bit my tongue, only managing to utter a half-hearted, “Thank you.”
The cop returned to his car and peeled of, leaving me feeling vexed at the idea of being stopped for what I saw as nothing. It wasn’t until we caught up with our friends in the other car at a neighborhood diner that I discovered why the officer pulled me over. Apparently my friends in the car ahead had noticed my headlights kept flashing off and on periodically while we were driving, but thought it was just me playing around. I knew for a fact I didn’t touch the lights, so when I got home I asked my mother if anything was wrong with the car and she revealed that it had some electrical issues that caused the headlights to flicker, which she forgot to mention when she gave me the keys.
Similar to Perry, I was technically in the wrong but that still didn’t stop me from feeling like it was a racially biased incident. Sure, I wasn’t driving a luxury car but I was a person of color in a White neighborhood. At the end of the day, no matter how rich or poor you are, when it comes to (mis)perception that’s what it all boils down to. Those police officers had no clue who Perry was and to them he was just another Black man (read: suspect).
While we’ve definitely come a long way in terms of acceptance (i.e. a Black man named Barack Obama being appointed President of the United States), we still have a long way to go. American culture is rooted in racism and no matter how many of us make it that alone won’t change the system. Tyler Perry might have a lot more money than me but our skin color is the same. When the fancy cars, suits and money is all stripped away and he’s just another man that’s Black while driving (or walking) there’s no separating someone like him from someone like me or a 17-year-old boy on his way home from buying a bag of Skittles. Well, the only difference is both Perry and I were able to walk away from our incidents and live to write about them, if only we were all that lucky.