Racially Profiled in Palm Beach

On a late-night bike ride, a law professor finds that neither his polite demeanor nor academic pedigree seems to outweigh the color of his skin.

darren staples.jpg
Darren Staples/Reuters

Race is America's Voldemort: That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. Even when discrimination's role in an event is obvious, there has to be another reason. It's not about race, it's about class. It's about safety. It's about line dancing. But we are arguably experiencing the greatest racial tensions since the 1960's, Barack or not.

The most prominent racial issue dividing America today is racial profiling. Trayvon, Stop-and-Frisk, Obama's Beer Summit, and Arizona's Show-Me-Your-Papers law are all about acting on racial presumptions.

Three years ago, on a balmy summer night in Palm Beach, I went for a midnight bike ride. Earlier that day, I presented a paper at a law professor conference at the Breakers Hotel. The whole day and early evening was crammed with intense intellectual schmoozing, so I was glad to have some solitary time to explore the long, narrow island. I hopped on my rented beach bike and headed south and over a bridge.

The air was warm and fragrant, the sky clear, and all was quiet. At moments like these, I start thinking about South Florida real estate and what it would be like to live there. Am I a bay person or an ocean person? What do you wear in the wintertime? Is there a beachside university in Florida, with an accredited law school?

So I'm pedaling along, thinking about Miami Vice, imagining myself as an academic Philip Michael Thom--

Suddenly I am blinded by a profusion of oncoming lights, accompanied by a siren, crossing against traffic into my lane on the two-lane road. Reacting quickly, I squeeze left and right brakes in addition to steering the bike sharply to the right. All together, it is perfect choreography for an overbar face-plant. I spill onto the blacktop.

I skid a little in front of my bike, scraping my elbows, wrists, and forearms on the road. Blood, but not too much. My childhood comes back to me in that odd mix of pain and nausea I felt from bike accidents in fifth grade.

No one is getting out of the police car to help. They're saying something through that electric bullhorn on the roof, unintelligible to me. I remember I'm in Florida, sprawled out in front of a police car, and consider the implications.

Painfully, I stand. My shirt is ripped. I try to get my bike but I'm told to stop moving. I can't see much because of the Klieg-like wattage pointing at my body. I keep my hands at my sides but away from my pockets, jazz-hand style. I wonder what I've done. I'm not wearing a helmet. My rental bike didn't have one to fit my cartoonishly large dredlocked head. I also didn't have a safety light or any reflective clothing. The man at the bike store said not to worry about it.

The first policeman steps out of the car. "Where are you headed?" I tell him I'm on a bike ride. "Why so late?" I say I like it late. "What are you doing here?" I tell him I'm a law professor attending a conference at The Breakers.

At this point, I'm still thinking about my lonely, abandoned doll of a bike on the ground. Then the second policeman approaches. "We've had some robberies here."

I'm incredulous at what's being suggested. Robberies? On a bike? On a rental bike? How am I supposed to fit a Sony flat screen on the back of a Huffy? Or plan my jewel heist at the mercy of a functioning kickstand? And do I really fit the profile? I've just spent the day with people who live (live!) for subject-matter jurisdiction. And what does it matter if it is after midnight? There are no martial-law curfews in Palm Beach.

The first policeman asks for my ID. He asks for my name and address--clearly printed on the card, next to my picture that looked exactly like me--and my university affiliation.

Both men retreat into the car with my ID to run it though an interminable, rotary-dial background check system. It takes no fewer than 15 minutes. I'm alone with my thoughts, which are mostly questions. I try not to move, and attempt rationalization. Perhaps the burglary announcement was coincidental. I had multiple bike violations, and night cyclists are rare. There must be a logical reason for getting stopped. Other people must have gotten stopped like this.

The first policeman comes back with my ID and tells me I'm free to go. I'm mulling over this incident, and so I cross back over the bridge and decide to do a full loop of the island and think.

I'm on my bike for only a few minutes before another high pitched siren ringtone tells me to stop cycling. Again. This time there are two police cars.

"Where're you headed?" -- Around the island.

"This late?" -- Yes.

"Why are you in Palm Beach?" -- Law conference at The Breakers.

Then, "Where'd you go to school?" This is odd, but I say everything: Duke undergrad, Edinburgh Junior Year, Michigan Masters, Penn Law, Michigan PhD. He nods, says something about a lot of school. I agree. I've worked hard to get where I am, believing in education and merit as great equalizers. But that doesn't matter now. Now, I'm a suspicious black dude out on a bike past sundown.

Americans love to say "it's not about race." Unless there is a cross burning and people wearing "I'm racist" t-shirts, it has to be about something else. Complaining minorities, so the refrain goes, have chips on their shoulders.

I told him that I had been stopped twice in a matter of minutes, within .25 miles of each other, with a total of three cars, for being suspected of burglary while on a bicycle. Then I politely ask him to call his colleague who had stopped me only 3 minutes before -- albeit on the other side of the bridge -- to send out an APB that there was a dark bicyclist on Palm Beach. He said that was unnecessary.

Nothing violent happened. But this incident showed me something about bias and perception. Though it's common to hear race described as just one "factor" in profiling, it's a factor that seems to outweigh all others: age, education, class, occupation, and just plain common sense--remember, rental bike. It's utterly exasperating to realize that how hard you work, how much money you have, where you went to school, who your friends are mean nothing at crucial times. The values of colorblindness and merit--which conservatives, including black conservatives, rely on in other race-based debates, for example those about affirmative action--wouldn't even save Clarence Thomas on the street in these moments: Cabs will pass, police will stop, and as we painfully know, neighbors will shoot.

"What do you call a black man with a PhD?" Malcom X famously asked, "A nigger."

I asked for a police escort back to my hotel. He declined. I gave up, and went home. Another sundown town in Florida.