With the exception of creationists and other anti-science groups, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most recognizable and well-liked people on the planet. He has discussed race in America sparingly, mentioning the need for equal opportunities for women and African Americans in the sciences—as an extension to equal opportunities outside of the fields in science. Tyson put up an excerpt from his book The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, a piece from the chapter “Dark Matters” that he posted to his Facebook page. He opens:
Occasionally, I personalize dark matter’s place in the universe. Especially the part about matter and dark matter feeling one another’s gravity but not otherwise interacting. Never was this more real to me than during the summer of 1991, when I attended an annual conference near Atlanta, Georgia, of a national physics society that I belonged to. That autumn I would begin my astrophysics postdoctoral research appointment at Princeton University.
He goes on to talk about the camaraderie found at conferences, sharing similar experiences and interests, nerding out about the same things. Then, as Tyson remembers a night of talking and talking and talking with colleagues, he recalls that as they approached midnight, the conversations turned to speeding tickets and getting pulled over by the police.
My colleague had other encounters with the law that he shared later that night, but he started a chain reaction among us. One by one we each recalled multiple incidents of being stopped by the police. None of the accounts were particularly violent or life-threatening, although it was easy to extrapolate to highly publicized cases that were. One of my colleagues had been stopped for driving too slowly. He was admiring the local flora as he drove through a New England town in the autumn. Another had been stopped because he was speeding, but only by five miles per hour. He was questioned and then released without getting a ticket. Still another colleague had been stopped and questioned for jogging down the street late at night.
As for me, I had a dozen different encounters to draw from. There was the time I was stopped late at night at an underpass on an empty road in New Jersey for having changed lanes without signaling. The officer told me to get out of my car and questioned me for ten minutes around back with the bright head lights of his squad car illuminating my face. Is this your car? Yes. Who is the woman in the passenger seat? My wife. Where are you coming from? My parents house. Where are you going? Home. What do you do for a living? I am an astrophysicist at Princeton University. What’s in your trunk? A spare tire, and a lot of other greasy junk. He went on to say that the “real reason” why he stopped me was because my car’s license plates were much newer and shinier than the 17-year old Ford that I was driving. The officer was just making sure that neither the car nor the plates were stolen.
After recounting more brushes with the law, Neil deGrasse Tyson says that he and his fellow scientists continued sharing numerous stories. Being scientists and “mathematically literate,” Tyson wondered what were the common denominators of these stories? It wasn’t the cars, the scientists’ vehicles ranged from nice to less nice, new and old. It couldn’t be the time of day, since the stories ranged all over the clock from early in the morning, through the afternoon and into the evenings.
Taken collectively, however, you would think the cops had a vendetta against physicists because that was the only profile we all had in common. One thing was for sure, the stories were not singular, novel moments playfully recounted. They were common, recurring episodes. How could this assembly of highly educated scientists, each in possession of a PhD — the highest academic degree in the land — be so vulnerable to police inquiry in their lives? Maybe the police cued on something else. Maybe it was the color of our skin. The conference I had been attending was the 23rd meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists. We were guilty not of DWI (Driving While Intoxicated), but of other violations none of us knew were on the books: DWB (Driving While Black), WWB (Walking While Black), and of course, JBB (Just Being Black).
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