Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses the dozens of times he’s been racially profiled.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses the dozens of times he’s been racially profiled.

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. Conferences are comforting places. You feel as if you’ve known people your entire life even though you’ve never met because everyone’s life path strongly resembles that of your own. Among professional physicists, for example, we all got good grades in school (last checked, physicists are disproportionately represented among college seniors who graduate magna and summa cum laude). We’ve all solved the same homework problems in physics classes. We’ve all read the same books.

We wield nearly identical vocabulary sets when describing the physical world. And we’ve all felt the occasional aspersions cast by pop-society on our intellectual abilities. By the time of the society banquet, held the last night of the conference, people have loosened up.

Discussions commonly shift to personal matters and other things that have nothing to do with the subjects and themes of the conference. By the end of this particular banquet, a dozen of us from several adjacent tables collected the unfinished bottles of wine and retreated to one of those common-rooms on the top floor of the hotel. We talked (and argued) about the sorts of things that the rest of society would surely consider to be geeky and pointless, such as why cans of Diet Pepsi float while cans of regular Pepsi sink. That one was new to me, although I did have latent memories from the end of long parties where all the ice had melted in the beverage cooler and some soft drinks were floating while others were resting at the bottom. We lamented the fact that the transporter in the television and film series Star Trek does not transport perfectly across spacetime.

Apparently, the teleported copy sustains an extremely small but quantifiable level of degradation when compared with the original—a perversely humorous fact that was well-known among the Star Trek cognoscente. The questions to be debated started rolling: How many times could you be transported back and forth between the starship and a planet before you started to look different? What part of your body would change? Was it your DNA? Was it your atomic structure? Or would you one day beam back to the ship without a nose? That night was rich in the expression of applied mental energy.

What else could you have expected among intellectual soul-mates, at the end of a full meal, near the end of a full conference, while sipping good wine into the late evening? Around midnight, while discussing momentum-transfer in automobile accidents, one of us mentioned a time when the police stopped him while driving his car. They 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, although a brief discussion of the precision of police radar guns followed. We all agreed that on a straight road, the geometry of a radar gun measurement prevents your exact speed from being measured unless the police officer stands in the middle of the oncoming traffic. If the officer stands anywhere else, such as to the side of the road, the measured speed will be less than your actual speed. So if you were measured to be speeding, you were certainly speeding. 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. In my other stories, I had been stopped by the police while transporting my home supply of physics textbooks into my newly assigned office in graduate school. They had stopped me at the entrance to the physics building where they asked accusatory questions about what I was doing. This one was complicated because a friend offered to drive me and my boxes to my office (I had not yet learned to drive). Her car was registered in her father’s name. It was 11:30 PM. Open-topped boxes of graduate math and physics textbooks filled the trunk. And we were transporting them into the building. I wonder how often that scenario shows up in police training tapes.

In total, I was stopped two or three times by other security officers while entering physics buildings, but was never stopped entering the campus gym. In that conference hotel room, we exchanged stories about the police for two more hours before retiring to our respective hotel rooms. Being mathematically literate, of course, we looked for “common denominators” among the stories. But we had all driven different cars—some were old, others were new, some were undistinguished, others were high performance imports. Some police stops were in the daytime, others were at night. Taken one-by-one, each encounter with the law could be explained as an isolated incident where, in modern times, we all must forfeit some freedoms to ensure a safer society for us all.

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). A year after the conference, Rodney King was pulled from his car by the Los Angeles Police and, while hand-cuffed, tased, and lying face-down on the street, was beaten senseless with night sticks.

What sometimes goes unremembered is that the deadly riots that followed in South Central LA were not triggered by the beating itself but by the subsequent acquittal of key participating officers by a court of law. Upon seeing the now-famous video of the incident, I remembered being surprised not because Rodney King was beaten by the police but because somebody finally caught such an incident on tape.

The next meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists, held in Jackson, Mississippi, happened to coincide with those Los Angeles riots. I was scheduled to give the luncheon keynote address on May 1, 1992, exploring the success or failure of undergraduate physics education in the academic pipeline that leads to the PhD. But while watching the helicopter news coverage of the fires and violence that broke out that morning, I had a surreal revelation: the news headlines were dominated by Black people rioting and not by Black scientists presenting their latest research on the frontiers of physics.

Of course, by most measures of news priorities, urban riots over-ride everything else, so I was not surprised. I was simply struck by this juxtaposition of events, which led me to abandon my original keynote and replace it with ten minutes of reflective observations on NSBP’s immeasurable significance to the perception of Blacks by Whites in America.