Traffic Stops and Swimming Pools

person about to dive on swimming pool
Photo by Emilio Garcia on Unsplash

We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.

—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

When I was younger (we’re all very well-behaved now 🙂 ), I had several friends and family members who had unpleasant run-ins with police, where they were cuffed or arrested or beaten, the common thread being not that they were black (they were all white), but they were all wise-asses who didn’t respect authority and couldn’t find it within themselves to be compliant to a police officer.

One day my 9th-grade gym teacher told us (again, all white boys) to be excessively polite to police officers — yes sir, no sir — have your day in court if it came to that, but better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6.

In my experience, the narrative that only black citizens have run-ins with cops and have no agency over whether the encounter escalates is quite wrong.

I say this as background to a conversation I had recently with a local lunatic regarding race . . .

“Are you scared of dying every time you get pulled over?” she asked. “And would you, without reservation, be a black person in America right now?”

“Good question . . . my family would be in for quite a shock. A ‘black person in America’ . . . who would I be? Barack Obama? Lebron James?

“There’s a model for being successful in America, even as a member of a marginalized group.

“On the traffic stop, I’ve heard that cops pull over motorists just because they’re black, so I always wonder why they’re pulling me over. But I’m not scared of dying.”

“So your answer is no, whether you realize it or not. And every black American is scared of dying at a traffic stop. Every. Black. American.”

“Why? People of all races are killed at traffic stops.” I knew that introducing a fact would be the knockout blow. “And do you mind if I ask how many black Americans you talked to before reaching that conclusion?”

“I researched it as part of my PhD studies. I’ve seen Chris Rock on Comedians in Cars . . .”

“You did your PhD studies by watching comedy shows on TV?”

“I’ve read at least 7 books on the subject. I listen, I observe. I’ve read and listened to Donald Glover.”

“Aren’t all the people you’ve mentioned still alive? Maybe this ‘dying at traffic stops” thing is not a rational fear.”

“So if you want to say something stupid like ‘People of all races die at traffic stops’ . . . I’m not going to waste my time on white men who don’t want to learn anything.”

“What is your issue with ‘People of all races die at traffic stops’? It’s an indisputable fact that blows up the whole fake narrative. I’m a scientist. I deal with facts and rationality. You deal with anecdotes, emotion, urban legends, some kind of mind-reading trick that allows you to see inside the head of ‘every black American,’ and you assume that if anyone sees the world differently than you do, it’s because they have something to ‘learn.’

“You want to teach me something? How many Americans die annually at traffic stops, broken down by race?”

“I don’t know that. I’d have to look it up.”

“The number is about 100. It breaks down pretty evenly by race: 30 black, 30 white, 30 Hispanic. Only the black deaths make the news, but even without looking case by case at how many had open warrants, how many had weapons in the car, how many resisted arrest, the probability of being killed at a traffic stop is extremely low. It’s not a rational fear. It’s just something that’s pumped up by hustlers in exchange for money and votes from gullible people like you, and to advance an anti-cop agenda.

“I read a while back that about 50 people a year are struck by lightning. Are you scared of being struck by lightning? I’m not. It’s too rare. But it’s almost twice as common as a black motorist being killed at a traffic stop.”

“I can also tell you that about 100 black Americans a year die in swimming pool accidents. Can you peer into the minds of ‘every black American’ and tell me if they live in fear of swimming pools? 100 is still a very small number but it’s a far more common cause of death than traffic stops.

“Maybe we can defund the police and invest in swimming lessons.”

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