"Neil deGrasse Tyson" by NASA / Public Domain

Reflections on the Color of My Skin

Jun 9, 2020

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

At a physics conference I attended long ago, while sipping wine left over from the final dinner, a dozen of us peeled off and started arguing about fun geeky things. Why does Superman need a cape? And why do cans of Diet Pepsi float while cans of regular Pepsi sink? And how would the Star Trek transporter actually work? As the evening progressed, just after a discussion of momentum transfer in car accidents, one of us mentioned a time when the police stopped him while driving. The officer ordered him from his sports car and conducted a thorough search of his body, the car’s cabin, and the trunk before sending him on his way with a hefty ticket. The charge for stopping him? Driving twenty miles per hour over the local speed limit. Try as we did, we could not muster sympathy for his case.

My colleague had other encounters with the law that he shared later that night, but his first story 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 headlights of his squad car brightly illuminating my face. Is this your car? Yes. Who is the woman in the passenger seat? My wife. Where are you coming from? My parent’s 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.

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