While driving through Shoshona on The Great North By Northwest Jobs Tour, Clancy and I got pulled over for speeding. We had just stopped to refill the gas tank and I had handed the keys over to her. I hadn’t conveyed to her the rather low speed limit in town and so there were were on the side of the road with flashing lights.

Further complicating matters was that we had a taillight out. Though we didn’t know that to be the case, it wasn’t a surprise. I’d had that light replaced the week before and the guy that replaced it said that it was going to happen again because a leak was allowing water inside. If I’d had the receipt, I would have been able to show the cop that we’d just had it replaced and so we were quite surprised that it went out again (no mention of the leak, of course).

Oh, and we had no proof of insurance.

The cop told us to watch our speed and gave us a warning for the taillight and the speeding. He did give us a ticket for the insurance, but also told us that if we could just prove that we were insured it would be dismissed. He told us that we looked like good, upstanding folks, so he was going to cut us a break. We thanked him profusely.

Later on the trip we were in a bookstore on the Shoshona/Cascadia border that the punner in me wishes was called Borders but alas was their main competitor. We were waiting to hear back on whether or not we would be driving directly back to Gemini Falls or going home. So we decided to hang out at the bookstore. Clancy brought in a book she’d been reading. She asked Customer Service if she needed some sort of tag for her book since she brought it in, but declined and the lady at the checkout didn’t feel the need to check up on that because, well, we looked like good people.

As a smoker and serial-loiterer, I sometimes get run off by local establishments. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It tends to happen most when two factors are in play, one of which is that I am not dressed nicely. It got to the point that if I knew I would be smoking a cigarette at a convenience store I would actually dress up for the occasion. Half Sigma, I think it was, wrote a short post a while back about a criminal-type who managed to avoid suspicion primarily by dressing in a suit.

I am a relatively fortunate guy. I was born white into a house with solid middle class values. I was taught (though it didn’t always take) how to dress up or down for an occasion. I was taught to be polite to cops and polite to people in general. That appearances matter. Though this is belied a bit by my loitering, nonetheless I was taught that it is best not to look or act the least bit suspicious. While it is everyone’s right to act suspicious, just because something is a right does not make it a good idea and people can make trouble for you if they feel its worth their own trouble.

It’s enough to make one wonder the extent to which this is a healthy outlook for a society. I’m sure an indignant, younger version of myself would have felt that it was not. Stereotyping is bad and all that. Just because a kid is dressed like somebody that makes trouble does not mean that he should be treated that way.

The older I get, the less convincing I find that perspective. Even if you are doing nothing wrong, you are providing a degree of cover for those that are doing wrong. If criminals all start wearing plaid tomorrow, it would make the job of police officers a lot easier! Making their job easier not only results in less crime, but it also involves them spending less time bothering good, upstanding folks trying to suss out the criminals.

I’m not advocating laws being passed to ban plaid or anything like that. Nor do I think that being deferential to a police officer should be one of those things forced with the strong arm of the law (except as required). And I don’t think that wearing plaid should, in and of itself, be probable cause for anything. The same goes for mouthing off to a cop (within reasonable limits, of course).

There is a saying that just because something is a right does not make it right. The next step is to say that just because something is a right does not make it morally neutral, either. It may not be illegal for a man with an unpleasant build to wear a speedo to the beach, but that doesn’t mean that doing something he knows will make others uncomfortable is not self-centered and distasteful.

On the subject of deferring to law enforcement personnel, it would of course be much easier to do that if you can trust them. There are parts of Delosa and Louisiana and other southern states where I would never, ever let a cop look in my car without a warrant. There are other circumstances with any police department where I would be a lot more reluctant. Often, police departments bring this sort of resistance upon themselves.

This is one of those areas where I think a good amount of disservice is done with traffic enforcement. Speed traps are a great way to raise funds, but they’re also a good way to create mistrust between the police and the citizenry. It makes more of our encounters with cops than not an adversarial experience. Cities, counties, and states have rights about what kind of speed limits to post. They also have the right to shorten yellow lights at intersections. And the right to park bait cars. But just like the actions of the citizens have inconvenient ramifications sometimes, so do actions of the authorities.

-{Take care to note that other than in the rhyming title, no mention of race is mentioned here.}-

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7 Responses to The Advantages of Being White, Bright, and Polite

  1. DaveinHackensack says:

    If you are wearing a suit in Manhattan, you can go to use the nicest bathrooms. Just walk purposefully into the lobby of the nearest expensive hotel and you’re all set. They’ll assume you’re staying there or having a meeting there.

  2. stone says:

    I think a lot of people from nice backgrounds believe dressing down is a way of showing solidarity with the poor. They also enjoy the idea that they can trick others.

    I used to believe in this, until I got tricked a few times by rich people doing it. Pissed me off.

  3. DaveinHackensack says:

    “I think a lot of people from nice backgrounds believe dressing down is a way of showing solidarity with the poor. They also enjoy the idea that they can trick others.”

    David Brooks famously noted that BoBos (his term; essentially SWPLs with money)will borrow fashions from a foreign peasant — maybe a Guatemalan poncho, for example — but never from poor American whites. Self-made folks with real money, in my experience, dress the way the want because they can, and they don’t care what anyone thinks.

  4. W. says:

    That’s obvious, Dave, because a rich SWPL dressing like a poor white could actually be mistaken for a poor white. (Heavens forbid)

    But nobody would mistake a SWPL wearing a poncho for an actual Central American peasant.

  5. David Alexander says:

    There are parts of Delosa and Louisiana and other southern states where I would never, ever let a cop look in my car without a warrant.

    Coincidentally, that’s why I have no interest in roadgeeking in the South…

  6. David Alexander says:

    For what it’s worth, I was going to post on my blog about a recent train trip where riders avoided sitting next to me. At first, I was pondering if racism was the main charge, but I was dressed like a railfan (unshaven, heavy sweater, jeans, and coat) so I’m inclined to believe that it was classism on the part of the mostly business class ridership. If anything, on the ride to Penn Station that morning, a bunch of business casual types sat next to me on the train from an upper middle class town with no problems, and relatively attractive young white woman sat next to me on the railroad ride home. As you noted, I’d imagine that wearing a suit would have increased my chances for having a seat mate.

  7. rob says:

    David, wtf is wrong with you? Most people are ecstatic about getting 2 seats to themselves.

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