N.J. Admits Driving and Race Often Don’t Mix

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Minority communities have called the problem DWB -- driving while black. Police departments around the country have denied that they target minority drivers for traffic stops, searches and arrests. But confirmation of the practice came this week from none other than New Jersey -- one of the states where the accusations have been the strongest in the wake of an April 1998 incident in which two white state troopers fired 11 shots into a van carrying three African-Americans and one Hispanic. “This is a systematic problem that everyone in the minority community believes is a well-established police practice,” says TIME correspondent Elaine Rivera. “Finally, here is a major acknowledgment that race profiling isn’t just a complaint by a few people.”

The admission by New Jersey, the result of a two-month investigation that revealed that 77 percent of cars searched by state troopers were driven by blacks or Hispanics, was proclaimed by New Jersey governor Christine Whitman herself. While the visibility of the announcement -- Whitman is a rising star in national Republican politics and is running for the Senate in 2000 --will highlight the problem for many people, for most African-Americans, “this will not come as a bombshell,” says TIME reporter Harriet Barovick. “Many will remain skeptical that the mere revelation will bring any immediate changes.” Perhaps. But Governor Whitman has a record of acting decisively when she focuses on a major problem. And the Department of Justice is now also looking into the situation and has asked police departments from around the country to report back on what their traffic-stop practices actually are. If more smoking guns turn up, racial profiling could quickly become the next big issue in the racial politics of the country.