Neil deGrasse Tyson Opens Up About His Experiences with Police

Neil deGrasse Tyson posts a very current-news relevant chapter from his 2004 memoir, 'The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist' on his Facebook page.

Neil Degrasse Tyson

Science superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson posted a chapter on Facebook from his 2004 biography, The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, which recounts several instances when he and other black scientists were stopped or harassed by police for seemingly trivial matters.

There was the time I was stopped late at night at an underpass on an empty road in New Jersey for having changed lanes without signaling. The officer told me to get out of my car and questioned me for ten minutes around back with the bright head lights of his squad car illuminating my face.

I had been stopped by the police while transporting my home supply of physics textbooks into my newly assigned office in graduate school. They had stopped me at the entrance to the physics building where they asked accusatory questions about what I was doing.

During a National Society of Black Physicists conference, deGrasse Tyson remembers how he, along with other black scientists, were engaged in geeky banter, musing over issues concerning the laws of physics and the teleporter on Star Trek and why some brands of soda cans float to the top of a cooler with melted ice, while others sink.

The conversation took a more somber tone after one scientist mentioned he had been stopped by the police. One-by-one, the other physicists relayed their police encounters:

One of my colleagues had been stopped for driving too slowly. He was admiring the local flora as he drove through a New England town in the autumn. Another had been stopped because he was speeding, but only by five miles per hour. He was questioned and then released without getting a ticket. Still another colleague had been stopped and questioned for jogging down the street late at night.

A particularly harrowing account in deGrasse Tyson’s recollection is when he gave a keynote address right after Rodney King was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles in 1991. The riots that followed served as a backdrop to the event:

While watching the helicopter news coverage of the fires and violence that broke out that morning, I had a surreal revelation: the news headlines were dominated by black people rioting, and not by black scientists presenting their latest research on the frontiers of physics.

  • Jason Donovan

    I have never doubted that black people encounter far more negative interactions with police than white people. My question is, “What do we do to stop this behavior…or do we?” I gather that this comment might raise alarm for some but let me explain. Yes, black people get pulled over a lot because police profile them or question why they are doing what they are doing. However, this is the same reasoning that caused police to pull me over many times throughout the years. I was running down the street late one night trying to burn off stress from the day and police stopped me and said, “We had reports of suspicious activity in the area”. I knew this was their go to blanket statement to justify them stopping me and they really had no reason what so ever but needed something to tell me. I laughed at the officer and asked if I look suspicious in my running shoes, running shorts, and t-shirt? When he said it was unusual to be running at midnight, I said to him, “you clearly don’t have an Ex-wife to deal with”. He laughed and apologized and I was off. Now lets change the color of my skin for a second. sure the same officer might have not believed me had I been black and asked for ID and been more persistent, or the exact same end result could have happened because both approached the situation with open minds. Did I fault the officer for stopping me? I admit, it irritated me, but knowing that he was patrolling the area and stopped someone out late at night did give me some comfort that at least they were trying to question people who were out at that hour rather than let them alone. It did make me feel like my area was more secure because the cops were diligent and would be more likely to stop a crime from happening or protect someone in need. So is it wrong they take such actions? Maybe. A friend of mine once said they never had a negative interaction with police like other black people (they being black) because they answer questions, understand the officer is trying to prevent bad things from happening, and don’t lash out questioning the officer’s motives, rights or whatever as many do. A phrase they told me was, “why poke a dog with a stick…they may bite you”. However, if there are areas where police are harassing people and this type of behavior is excessive, then I can understand a need to change it and make it more appropriate, but how do we do that? Not by yelling at cops, not by stating your rights, the best course is to pressure the elected officials to remove the union protection so you can get rid of the bad cops and they aren’t protected and continue to train new officers in their bad habits. I had a friend who was an officer for a time and he said the person he was partnered with was taught him some very bad habits that he had to relearn the right way. Who protects these bad cops…unions. So why not target the unions and make police responsible for their own actions just like the rest of us? You’ll have a lot less bad cops keeping their jobs and more good cops wanting to do the right thing than there is.

    • Leonidas Gallagher


      I agree with everything you said (especially about union reform and getting rid of bad cops), just wanted to add 3 things.

      1) Cooperation and civility on the part of the suspect is HUGE. If police feel threatened they may overreact and then everything goes downhill fast.

      2) Related to #1 above, protests and ambushes that target and kill cops REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THEY ARE GOOD OR BAD, BLACK OR WHITE OR WHATEVER, will only increase overreaction by cops, because they will he justifiably more threatened 100% percent of the time.

      SIDE NOTE on #2…I told my wife that while still wrong, I could understand retaliation in Baton Rouge where a police incident happened much more that Dallas. Both are wrong, but to me a local reactionary incident is more understandable than a planned assault in another location.

      3) Least important, love the Buddy Christ avatar! Wish more people could have that attitude, would save lives on all sides.

      • Jason Donovan


        Genuine agreement from me too! Cooperation and civility go a long way and are key to reducing the possibility of violence. As for your second side note, I have to admit, while I agree that retribution will have a generally negative effect, I get what you’re saying and I can see your point. As for #3, it’s my favorite avatar! Better to be light hearted than angry over a difference of opinion. Have a great day!!!

        • V H

          When push comes to shove and the police can see that you are not afraid of death things change.

    • smartytrousers

      “A friend of mine once said they never had a negative interaction with
      police like other black people (they being black) because they answer
      questions, understand the officer is trying to prevent bad things from
      happening, and don’t lash out questioning the officer’s motives, rights
      or whatever as many do.”

      “Not by yelling at cops…”

      Why are you assuming that the only negative interactions black people have with police is because they’re being belligerent? You only got an opinion from one black person. In that we are not a monolith, he can’t even speak for the people who have never encountered anything, as a whole. You’re doing your best to seem like you’re open-minded about people of color dealing with discrimination from cops, but you can tell that in the back of your mind you just think it’s warranted. You can be on YouTube for hours watching videos of people of color not being belligerent and still being treated less than.

      Also, if you found a black person running at midnight like you were, you would find a very naive black person. That’s not even something a black person, especially a black man would ever think to do. It’s hard enough for them to run at 10 in the morning on a Saturday if they live in a nice neighborhood.

  • nimblenavigator

    I know it’s super not-PC to say this, but how much of this is definitely racial prejudice and how much is assumed racial prejudiced? I was pulled over by a cop for one of my two license plate bulbs being out. The cop asked me to get out of the car and after asking me questions about where I was going and what I was doing he looked at my license and noticed it was my birthday. Then he said, “You seem like a nice guy and I know it’s your birthday but can I search your car for my safety?” And I’m as white as it gets. This crap happens to everyone.

    • Jason Donovan

      Something similar happened to me too, except that the cop that pulled me over was a woman who claimed she suspected me of being in possession of drugs. When she had me place my hands on the hood of her patrol car she proceeded to frisk my pockets and was certain I was hiding something beneath my pants. She then reached down my pants only to learn I was actually just excited by being groped by a cute female officer. She then informed me she would have to perform as strip search to ensure I wasn’t armed for her safety. Around 20 minutes later and drenched in sweat, she let me off with a warning and left. I felt violated and decided I had to tell someone about this injustice and wrote a very lengthy letter and sent it in to penthouse forum so they could print and make public my night…ok…so maybe it wasn’t the same…and by maybe…I mean it wasn’t…and ok it didn’t really happen…and by really I mean it didn’t…but I always hoped it would. Where are you hot kinky female officer!?!?!

    • smartytrousers

      You were actually stopped for something out of the ordinary. Did you notice that the examples given in the article are ordinary things people do every day? The only one that I could see being suspicious is driving too slowly. Otherwise, why would an officer confront people for the other things?

      • nimblenavigator

        Was being asked to step out of my vehicle ordinary for this type of infraction? No. Was being asked to have my car searched ordinary for this type of infraction? Of course not. Is it ordinary for a cop to say I seemed like a nice guy and it’s my birthday but could he do the search for his safety? I don’t think so. Had I been part of some minority group it would have been very easy to assume that all of this was due to me being a minority. That’s all I’m saying.

        • smartytrousers

          Forgot to say in my original response that you should know your rights and know that you don’t have to agree to your car being searched. I didn’t say the experience was ordinary; I said the reason you were stopped was. In Louisiana, it’s normal for people to get out of the car when they talk to policemen. It’s not where I come from.

          The interesting thing is, a lot of things people in the actual #BLM is fighting for would be beneficial to everyone, even white people. It makes no sense that a police officer would say, could they search your car for their safety. This is what the movement is talking about. Police officers are “doing too much” like in your instance. In reality, just because you experienced the same exact thing with one officer, doesn’t mean another (totally different) officer isn’t doing that to a person of color because of the color of their skin. The world is complex in that way.

          • nimblenavigator

            I think everything you are saying is completely reasonable and we actually agree more than disagree. But what I also see is that some people feel excluded by a movement that could be about general police misconduct but is really only about when it happens to a certain group. Some of these (mostly white) people who feel excluded act childishly in response by condemning BLM and saying #AllLivesMatter or other stupid things, which is obviously regrettable. But others just tune out because their own problems related to the same issue are at best minimized and at worst completely ignored.

            Now I know some might want to respond that black people have it worse and it’s selfish to want to make the movement about other people too. But just in terms of effectiveness of message and getting actual results I have to wonder if that’s the best approach. You’ll get people like me who are supportive in principle but question whether faulty assumptions about police motives play a role in denying that this is a universal problem. I mean when you look at hard evidence rather than anecdotes it really does seem like a problem that extends across racial lines.

          • smartytrousers

            Why do black people need to remove the word “black” to be inclusive? There are white people in black spaces that understand that we are inclusive in our groups. Why should we remove black to make you feel comfortable in fighting with us? It’s really similar to all the anecdotes people have been giving to explain BLM. Does the breast cancer movement have to change their color from pink to get men to support? (Even though men can get breast cancer too, e.g. Richard Roundtree)

            There are white people (not necessarily you) that are constantly telling black people that we need to work in our own communities (which has always been happening and you shouldn’t have to be black to do that because “we are all humans” #slightSarcasm), but when we actually do it, there’s a problem. 90% of the people against BLM don’t even know they have a platform, black and white. If I see an organization doing something that will benefit me as well, why would I require of them to change how the present themselves for me to feel comfortable joining in on their movement? Especially, with BLM, why wouldn’t a white person who actually knows the platform or understand that they are not a bad thing take it upon themselves to explain to other white people this knowledge?

            Black people’s existence is to have to care about everyone else because we have to make sure we’re not looking to menacing, not walking too closely, etc. I have to do this as a black woman who is not intimidating at all. So why should we have to concentrate on others when we feel the effects in our community the most? Notice I didn’t say we are affected the most. If we see a problem in our own community, we don’t HAVE to worry about others if we don’t want to. But please believe, there are white people that “get it” who were in the protests for the civil rights movement and who are in the protests now. Jane Elliott, Tim Wise, Father Michael Pleger and more can be a voice and have understanding without removing the word “black”, so there is no reason for us to think it’s impossible for others to do so as well.

          • nimblenavigator

            I’ll admit my approach is more pragmatic than principled. If you want a movement to grow and succeed it helps to be welcoming to anyone who might be supportive. This is true of any movement in history since it’s part of human nature to be self-interested. The breast cancer awareness analogy doesn’t really fit because men don’t get breast cancer. If you made a movement about cancer in general and then said, no this is just about women, a fair amount of men would be turned off, and in my opinion justifiably so because men are affected by cancer too. Rather than call those men sexist or ‘not one of the good ones’ it would be more pragmatic to change your message.

            I posted a link to the most conclusive analysis to date on police killings which shows that it’s not really a racial issue. Statistically, whites have the same chance of being killed in an individual encounter with police as blacks. Making the cost of entry to your movement the requirement that people believe otherwise is not in the best interest of the movement. You can stick to your principles and say you shouldn’t have to care but that is the reality of how people will respond.

            And let’s not pretend it’s just the word ‘black’ in Black Lives Matter that turns people off. There is a lot of rhetoric that isn’t exactly favorable to white people.

          • smartytrousers

            Surely you either skimmed what I wrote or you just decided that you were right because I clearly stated that men can get breast cancer and even gave you a celebrity example. I guess it would have been more obvious to say Shaft rather than Richard Roundtree? I’m not quite sure. The point is, they’re not changing the color for the few.

            Not sure why your way is more realistic when Martin Luther King did just fine getting things done with a mostly black cast during the Civil Rights movement.

            Again, you must be skimming because I clearly stated that we were not the most effected, so why you needed to reiterate that point, I’m not quite sure.

            Black Lives Matter isn’t about white people no matter how much you guys try to make it about you. It’s about self-care and making sure our fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, etc. make it home if they have an encounter with the police. And if they don’t come home, ensure that there are consequences when “something in the milk ain’t clean”. Read any article about how successful an individual will be if they live their entire lives worried about other people. Not much. So when black people decide to take a look at our community and see that we need some advocacy, white people’s feelings about that are not high on the list. The white people who can get past the word “black” are who we want with us anyway.

            What else about black lives matter turns people off that is actually real? Not in the false “they incite violence” narrative or everyone who is black represents them kind of way. What have the leaders of the movement or their platform which I’m sure you’ve looked up by now done to be off putting? Most of the rhetoric around BLM is made up. If we take for example the happenings on the Missouri college’s campus last year, the media called the students BLM instead of their proper name of Concerned Students 1950. So what REAL things are off putting?

          • nimblenavigator

            Let me start by saying that I genuinely appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation. I really mean that and am not trying to be antagonistic at all. Because you are right that it shouldn’t be your job or obligation to convince me of anything. Even so, I am open to the possibility that I am wrong and may have to change my view. I’d like to think that all of my views are subject to change based on new evidence and I am reading all of your responses carefully.

            I’d just like to clarify one thing about the cancer example because I think it highlights the main point of contention between us. I saw your Roundtree reference but what I meant is that for all intents and purposes the rate of male breast cancer is effectively zero. It’s almost exclusively a women’s issue. That’s why I switched it to cancer in general to more accurately reflect the parity of rates for police killings between blacks and whites. My point is that when a problem affects two groups at roughly the same rate and you create a movement advocating for solving the problem for only one of those groups, the other group might not be so enthusiastic.

            Which brings us to the main point. You don’t think you need white people’s support to create the changes you want and I grant you that in an ideally fair world you shouldn’t need it. But unfortunately it’s a numbers game and white people are still a majority. I don’t believe that MLK would have been as successful in creating lasting changes if the overwhelming majority of white people disagreed with his message. There would not have been the political will to create laws to prevent the bad actors from treating people unfairly. This is why I used the phrase ‘pragmatic rather than principled.’ In a fair world your approach would be the most effective but the reality is that things aren’t fair and the support of more white people only gets you the results you say you want quicker.

            I don’t want to go on too long but you asked about the REAL things about BLM that are off putting. I think BLM might have the same problem that almost all advocacy groups have and this is where I’m open to changing my view. Because my impression of the group has not thus far been based on only the leaders and their official platform although I am familiar with them. There are many other people who call themselves part of BLM and say some very problematic and inflammatory things as I’m sure you know. Perhaps this is what you meant by the rhetoric being ‘made up’ but how are we to know who is really part of the movement or not? I’m sure this is frustrating when you’re trying to get a reasonable message out there. So I wish you luck in getting your real message across because like I said I’m with you in principle and don’t want to see anyone unjustly killed by police.

          • smartytrousers

            I was using the breast cancer example to make MY point, not YOUR point, so you don’t need to change the example to prove your point if that’s not why it was originally introduce. And I say that in the most non-confrontational way possible. Lol. MY point was that the few will not have bearing on changing the color of breast cancer advocacy. So the few, as in white people, should not have any bearing on removing “black” from black lives matter. You can introduce something new to make your point. But if I’m trying to get your to understand my point there’s not need for you to change that. Is that a man thing? No offense. 🙂

            I didn’t say we don’t need white people. I said the movement doesn’t need to care about white people’s feelings about how the movement is represented. It is essentially a black movement just like it was in the 60s. So it will be represented in a black way. It wasn’t until white people starting getting beat up and dying that people started to pay attention back then. The movie, Selma, illustrates this. Lyndon B. Johnson, reluctantly in some cases, obliged MLK and the movement and started changing laws to keep people safe and to answer some questions that citizens had. Similar to Abraham Lincoln’s reluctance in his day. So it’s not like the white people who had the power to change things were actually FOR us. But the white people who were, helped. But they joined because they saw what was going on in our communities and thought it was wrong. It wasn’t a requirement for them to feel like they were fighting for whiteness as well.

            If I do something with my sorority letters on (still holds importance after college for black Greek letter organizations), people will say I’m speaking for my sorority. If I do something with a Saints jersey on. I’m not speaking for the Saints. If I have a BLM shirt on, people will say I’m speaking for BLM. If I have my university shirt on, I’m not going to be speaking for them. There is no consistency in what people assume you’re representing. Why don’t intelligent adults decided that not every black person speaks for or is a part of black lives matter? If I saw you speaking on TV, should I assume you’re speaking on behalf of the Westboro Baptist Church? Should I assume you’re speaking on behalf of the Episcopalian church? Should I assume you’re speaking on behalf of PETA? Should I assume you’re speaking as an All Lives Matter rep? Just because you say you are or because you’re white? When it’s an arbitrary person on the street or in a YouTube video and not on a reputable news source?

            White people have this great advantage to operate in the world of individuals and if multiple people come out to say that a particular person doesn’t represent them, they are believed. But despite the BLM founders saying that if the person isn’t speaking according to their guiding principles ( then they are not representing BLM, they are not believed? Why does the media and lay people associate every black person with a mic with BLM? If people were using the deductive reasoning they bring forward in multiple other situations, it would be easy to decide that, hmmm, maybe not every person who says they are BLM IS BLM. Especially since the founders keep reiterating that.

          • nimblenavigator

            Okay, but I’m saying the breast cancer example is a bad analogy for the issue of police killings because it doesn’t equally affect the two groups. It doesn’t make your point. Breast cancer affects only one of the genders. Police killings affect both of the races so white people aren’t just ‘the few’ as you put it. I offered a better analogy. That’s all.

            In your second paragraph, Selma takes place in what was the most hostile place in America towards black people at the time. The reason Johnson was so reluctant was because he was a Democrat and as he famously said they would lose the South for generations after that. There was political support for what he was doing from Republicans primarily from the North and West. The Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress, not just the President so it had to have some base of political support which at the time had to include a lot of white people. And if you are going to say “it wasn’t until white people starting getting beat up and dying that people started to pay attention back then” doesn’t that mean it would help to include the white people killed by police as part of your movement today? I don’t believe the premise that white people only cared when other whites started getting killed but if you do then it undercuts the rationale for BLM to ignore white people getting killed by cops today.

            You lost me in the third paragraph. I don’t think anyone assumes that every black person is in BLM. But when someone is carrying a giant banner that says ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ or loudly chanting ‘Black Lives Matter!’ I think they are taking clearly claiming their affiliation with the group. I take issue with the first clip for obvious reasons and the second is not something you can say MLK would have supported either. This is intimidation, not non-violent resistance.


            You can’t rely on the average person to use deductive reasoning to decide who the real BLM is. The average person is either too busy or not too bright and won’t give it that much thought. Again, I’m with you and the ‘real BLM’ in principle but just offering my perspective on how the movement might gain more followers. If you won’t reconsider your position that support from more white people would help your cause then I guess you don’t have to care.

          • smartytrousers

            I see you still haven’t gotten my point despite adding clarity multiple times. I wasn’t using the analogy to speak on police killings. I was using it to say that we don’t need to change the word black to make white people feel more comfortable. You really have to read what I’m saying as opposed to what you think you grasped. And breast cancer affects both genders, just one in a low percentage. That really must be a guy thing to constantly incorrectly state something as fact.

            I already know why he was reluctant. I learned history as well. Can you please READ the points I’m trying to make. My point was that he didn’t do it for a moral reason. The additional point that I am continually making that is going over your head is that we didn’t have to coerce those white people to join the movement by putting it in a nice pretty bow with a card that says “white people please help us”. They felt compelled because they thought that it was wrong. Again, for the 3rd time, this is the kind of people we want anyway. The people that don’t need to be convinced because it’s right there in their face. What extra did they need? What extra do people need now?

            Literally ANYBODY can yell Black Lives Matter. Your bar is very low for people who are actually with the FOUNDERS and the founders’ PRINCIPLES. Just like the Westboro Church doesn’t represent Christian principles while being a Christian church; just like the KKK does not exhibit Christian principles while claiming to be a Christian group; everybody who say they are a part are not actually in agreement with the founders. I’m not quite sure how else to put this point either. Did you look up the videos where the BLM founders denounced these videos and called for no violence or do you only look at videos that prove your point?

            We don’t want just ANY white people to join our cause. We don’t need to do marketing to get white people to join our cause. If you can’t see a person like Philando Castille die and think it’s important, we REALLY don’t want or need you. This just happened today ( If that and the myriad of other incidents that happen every day don’t convince you, what will? Like this is the black person’s plight. In this back and forth, I’m not sure I’ve convinced you of anything and you’re supposedly the open-minded white person. Why would we want to work that hard? Especially when we’ve been trying to convince white people since we got here. Don’t you think that’s tiring? Constantly having to prove things to people when the information is there?

          • nimblenavigator

            I’m not going to bother refuting you point by point again. You either can’t or won’t follow what I’m saying and then turn around and accuse me of not understanding. Must be a woman thing (what a sexist thing to say to someone, right?). For every Philando Castile there’s a white person killed by police too. It just doesn’t get the media attention. So go on believing that you can make change without broad popular support. It doesn’t seem like any amount of reason will change your mind. Have a good night.

  • RyGuy18

    There needs to be serious reform of the law enforcement community. This has been needed for a long time. People should feel protected when they see a cop, not paranoid, but their gung-ho, over zealous actions and the way they treat citizens as if they are already guilty must stop, so we can focus on actually making the world a better place. Long gone are the days of being innocent until proven guilty. Now, when you are stopped by a cop, the cop assumes we are guilty of anything they can dream up to suspect us of, and we now have to prove our innocence. Instead, cops should be assuming the best of people until they are proven otherwise.