Breathing While Black

Crying baby photo credit: Protest against the deaths of black women in police custody. Minneapolis, MN by Fibonacci Blue. Image cropped (CC BY 2.0)

Definition: (verb phrase) the imaginary “crime” of being an African American

Example: While Bethany was shopping for a new watch, she made the mistake of Breathing While Black, and a saleswoman followed her closely around the jewelry store, assuming she would try to steal something.


“Know Your Rights, Tell Your Story: What to Do if Stopped by the Police Driving While Black. Walking While Black. Breathing While Black.”
- Title of an information session at the University of Louisville (Kentucky) in October 2007

Breathing While Black is based on the earlier Driving While Black (DWB), a term for racial profiling that refers to the disproportionate number of African American drivers stopped by police. A 1994 study by John Lamberth found that although black drivers on the New Jersey turnpike made up 15% of those traveling over the speed limit, they made up 35% of drivers who were pulled over by police for doing so. This figure has been supported by some later studies and challenged by others. A 2005 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that blacks were not more likely to be stopped by police; however, the same study showed that both African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to be searched if police pulled them over.

The wording of Driving While Black is based on the criminal offense Driving While Intoxicated (often abbreviated as D.W.I.); the use of Driving While Black peaked in the news media in 1999, but it had been used for far longer. In 1990, the New York Times interviewed a teenager in Teaneck, New Jersey about the shooting of a black man by a white police officer. The young man explained, ''We get arrested for D.W.B. You know, driving while black.''

Breathing While Black first appeared in print in 1999, when Driving While Black stories were frequently in the news. It refers to the fact that blacks are not just profiled when driving, but in every aspect of life. I found one earlier citation, but the article that launched the term into the mainstream media was an opinion piece in the NY Times by Bob Herbert. He wrote about a small New York town in which every black male resident was considered a suspect in a 1992 burglary case.

Other “offenses” have been added to the list, including Flying While Black and Walking While Black. Because other minorities experience similar profiling, you can also find variations on the second part of the term, such as Walking While Brown, Driving While Hispanic and Flying While Muslim.

A. C. Kemp | November 8, 2007

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