A rose by any other name

If you’re a gardener in the East you can probably recognize the Japanese Beetle. You don’t do it by the book. There is a book. It’s complicated and you need a microscope. For this beetle, a quick look is good enough and experience does the rest. Our brains are good at pattern recognition.

Some Connecticut police forces are disputing statistics that call their officers racist. They protest, correctly, that many traffic stops are made before the officer knows the race of the driver.

You can tell who is eating your roses without a microscope, and police can recognize a lower class driver from a quick look at the car.

Lower class drivers make good targets. They don’t fight back in court, they are more likely to be carrying contraband, and they are more likely to have warrants. To police they’re like insect pests to a gardener.

In America race and class tend to go together. Targeting poor people has, as employment lawyers say, a disparate impact on black people. But it’s not the same legal wrong as overt racial discrimination.

Some years back one of the Boston newspapers looked into why it was hard to get a taxi into predominantly black parts of Boston. Even black drivers didn’t want to go there. The black parts of Boston have high crime rates, and cab drivers and pizza delivery drivers are occasionally robbed or killed.

Drivers weren’t violating the law prohibiting business decisions based on race. They were violating the law requiring Boston taxi drivers to go to any part of Boston. That’s a less serious offense.

When police stop cars and see dark skin, do they say to themselves “black guy, write him up” or “poor guy, write him up”? It’s an important distinction. The first is a civil rights violation, and the second is business as usual.

Because race has such a special status in American law, a lot of legal effort goes into deciding whether acts are illegal racial discrimination or legal anything-else discrimination.

That’s why some of the big legal news this month is the Supreme Court’s surprise decision to look at a gerrymandering case that didn’t involve race. There’s a long line of cases saying voting districts can not be drawn to dilute ethnic minority voting power. There’s a longer line of cases saying voting districts can be drawn to dilute political minority voting power.

A order banning traditional gerrymandering would be as much of a landmark as an order requiring the government to post the real speed limit on signs.

While we’re waiting for the Supreme Court to care about issues that affect everyday life instead of law school journals…

I’m not holding my breath. But here’s my idea.

We could mostly solve the disparate enforcement problem by closing the gap between the letter of the law and the real law. No more “speed limit 78 for respectable citizens, 55 for suspected drug dealers.”

Require uniform enforcement of traffic laws according to published rules. Police have to justify each traffic stop by showing how the violation was more serious than the other ones they ignored.

But doing this requires a court order or a law, and the people who can create either one aren’t getting abused by police. Why should they care what happens to us?

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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