The Power Issue
This week’s essay discusses race. It mentions violence and touches on the ideas of discrimination and profiling. On its face, it is a story about racial bias in law enforcement - not entirely unlike the story in our third “Issue,” “Don’t Be Like Me.”
But this week’s essay isn’t really about race so much as it is about racial bias, and it isn’t about law enforcement so much as it is about power. It is an examination of a frustrating and frightening system, a system in which certain influential members - be they police officers, school teachers, or professional recruiters - allow their biases to sway their decisions.
Jorge uses his experiences to draw our attention to a larger issue, reminding us that biases affect a myriad of identities, and that, while we rightfully pay close attention to the most severe traumas, we should not forget the great impact of the more “everyday.”
He writes, “When people or institutions find themselves with power over others… the consequences of their biases are magnified.”
Even actions of which we are hardly aware can have a great effect upon others, when accidental exclusion is often just as impactful as purposeful exclusion. No matter who you are - but especially if you hold a position of power - we encourage you to take a moment to reflect upon your biases and your behavior.
BIAS WITH POWER - Jorge Santoyo
CW: strong language
Flashing blue and red lights appeared in my rearview mirror. “Fuck.” I pulled over to the side of the road. “I am so stupid.” I saw the officer get out of his car and begin to approach me. I felt irritated, not just with myself, but with him.
I had been trying to find my sister’s apartment in Atlanta, Georgia. I’d missed my turn, so I followed my GPS into a cul-de-sac to head back onto the road in the other direction. I looked left for oncoming traffic. No cars. I looked right again as I pulled onto the road. My sister wasn’t home yet, so I wasn’t in a rush. All of a sudden, a very fast moving car appeared behind me from over a hill. I quickly tried to accelerate, but the car still had to slam on the brakes. I looked in my rearview mirror to see a police car. The officer immediately turned on his lights.
I stopped by the shoulder of the road I was supposed to have been on in the first place. I rolled down my window as I watched a white male officer approach me. “License and registration.” I looked up at him, but he didn’t meet my gaze. “May I ask what I did wrong?” My voice wavered when I asked him the question. I was genuinely confused about why he pulled me over but also taken aback by his aggressive tone. He was clearly upset. If he had been driving the speed limit, he never would have had to break like that.
He looked at me, and then at my Mom’s light blue mini van. When he finally spoke, it wasn’t to me. He spoke the word “code” and then a number into his radio.* When he finished, he met my gaze for the first time and smirked. A chill ran down my back.
After what seemed like an eternity, I had to repeat my question. “Failure to yield and reckless driving,” he responded. “License and registration.” Now nervous, I handed him my license and then opened the passenger compartment to look for the registration. A sense of dread came over me as I rifled through receipts and napkins, not sure if the registration was even there. I could feel his presence right behind me like he was leaning into the car window, watching me intently. I finally found it and handed it to him slowly.
This wasn’t my first time being pulled over. Years ago, - shortly after getting my license - I was leaving my friend’s house in Cary, North Carolina on a Saturday morning. I was driving my Dad’s Audi when I was pulled over on the freeway, despite going 5 mph under the speed limit. After first asking for and then running my license and registration, the officer told me why he pulled me over. He said the sticker on my license plate had expired, but he wasn’t going to write me a ticket. “It [was my] lucky day,” he said. I promised him sincerely that I would get the sticker updated as soon as possible and drove away gratefully. When I got home, I discovered that the sticker was not even close to expiring. Looking back at the situation, my family and I presumed the white officer saw a young Mexican boy driving an Audi and assumed the car was stolen.
I don’t like cops.
With this in mind, I waited until the officer came back to hand me my ticket. During his absence, I had worked myself up a bit. I did not have the money to pay for a ticket. “I was hoping to talk a little more about the situation,” I said, trying to make sure my voice didn’t waver this time. He responded by repeating the same numerical code into his radio. He then looked back at me without saying anything. No smile this time. I wanted to ask him if he had been speeding when he had to brake and how that might have influenced the situation. His continued repetition of the code into the radio was starting to worry me.
What if he was saying codes that would document the necessary justification he would need if he decided to escalate the situation? My mind quickly went to all the viral social media posts about unwarranted police aggression I’d seen over the years. Adrenaline shot into my veins. I felt a panic-induced pit appear in my stomach. I was frightened that he might be leveraging his numerical radio codes to create a false record of our interactions. He was making me feel like the questions I had a right to ask were criminal offenses. Could he be creating a narrative where I was acting dangerously? What if he was getting ready to ask me to get out of my car? What if I got abused, arrested, or shot? I suddenly became very aware of the color of my skin.
With the power of a government-sanctioned badge and gun, he just looked at me through his sunglasses. It was almost as if he was waiting for me to rub him the wrong way, to contradict his story, to simply inquire about and seek a justice he wasn’t inclined to provide. I no longer cared about what was fair. I just wanted to be safe. I wanted him to leave.
He began to explain that I could contest my ticket, but I would need to come back to this county in Georgia. I don’t remember everything he said after that point. I wasn’t listening any more. Part of me still wanted to argue that the ticket was unfair. I snapped back to attention as he handed me a ticket and told me where to sign. I remember holding it in my hands, looking down at the slip of paper. It didn’t feel right to sign. I looked up again, having found some more courage. “Before I sign,” I said, “Can you please tell me a little more about what qualifies as reckless driving, because I was driving carefully, and think that -” Before I could finish, he interrupted me, repeating the same numerical code into the radio. I stopped talking mid-sentence. He was grinning at me again.
I said “yes sir” to everything he said after that and signed the ticket, then stared down with my hands on the wheel until he drove away, and I felt safe again.
I’ll never know what his true intentions were. What I do know is that the fact those thoughts even entered my mind is symptomatic of the mounting evidence of racial bias and police aggression shown in American law enforcement towards people of color.
I am very aware that my experiences do not amount to the trauma that occurs daily, but they still speak to the larger problem at hand when it comes to bias with power. Everyone has conscious and unconscious biases. Hell, they were advantageous during human evolution and are still useful in helping us make quick decisions in a world full of noise. When people or institutions find themselves with power over others, however, the consequences of their biases are magnified.
Bias in positions of power might unfairly influence (advertently, or inadvertently) the hiring practices of a recruiting department, the approval of loans, the grading of student essays, the determination of promotions and raises, or in this case, the decision of when and how to enforce laws by a police officer. All of these can create and feed into unjust socio-economic disparities based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, beauty, sexual orientation, etc.
I don’t envy the hard, stressful, and dangerous situations police officers have to encounter. But it’s clear that police enforcement bias has been and can be, a matter of life and death. Those stressful split-second scenarios for an officer can mean the death of a citizen, whose very taxes on their income and spending funded the biased executioner.
*I do not remember the exact numerical code that was used by the officer.
MORE TO THE STORY
Did you like what you read? Curious to hear another perspective on this issue? Go back and check out our third Issue, The Law Enforcement Issue, featuring a powerful essay by contributor Michelle Ngwafon.
This week's essay focuses on how biases affect policing, but these same biases influence many other aspects of life. In the video below, Valerie Alexander explains how the human brain instinctively reacts to the unexpected, and encourages us to look closely at our own thoughts and behavior in order to improve our relationships and our world.
"A moment of racial tension presents a choice. Will we be silent about implicit and unconscious bias, or will be interrupt bias for ourselves and others?" Kori Carew talks about how we can have productive conversations on bias, emphasizing education while still validating diverse experiences of oppression. Watch the brief video below.