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Why does ‘race’ appear on your NC driver’s license? And why is it blank?

The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles says driver’s licenses are being produced again, after the company that prints and mails them fixed a computer problem that caused some licenses to contain errors.
The N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles says driver’s licenses are being produced again, after the company that prints and mails them fixed a computer problem that caused some licenses to contain errors. NCDMV

On your North Carolina driver’s license, on the same line with your height and your hair color, you’ll find the word “race.”

Chances are the space next to it is blank. So why is it there?

It goes back to a decision by the N.C. General Assembly nearly 25 years ago to accommodate the state’s Native American residents.

State law requires that when you apply for a driver’s license that you provide a physical description, including your gender, height, eye color and hair color. The answers to those questions appear on the license itself.

The license also used to include race, with the option of picking one of three categories: black, white and “other.” In the late 1980s, the state Division of Motor Vehicles decided that vague notation was not needed to meet the law’s requirements for a description of the driver, and race was removed from the license starting in January 1990.

But three years later, state Rep. Ronnie Sutton, a Democrat from Robeson County, filed a bill that would require a person’s race be listed on the driver’s license. Sutton, a member of the Lumbee tribe and the only Native American in the legislature at the time, said that for American Indians the notation was important in establishing their identity and preventing confusion about their background.

The bill had the support of the state Commission of Indian Affairs. Gregor Richardson, the commission’s current executive director, says it’s still important to Native Americans to be able to establish their identity on the license, the way many military veterans opt to put the veteran designation on theirs.

The General Assembly chose to make race an option on the driver’s license “at the request of the applicant.” Driver license examiners are not required to ask a customer for his race unless the customer asks for it to appear on the license, said DMV spokesman John Brockwell.

The DMV’s driver license handbook doesn’t mention the option either.

And in fact, only a tiny fraction of drivers ask for their race to be included on their license. Of the more than 8 million people carrying a North Carolina driver’s license or ID last month, only 98,248, or 1.2 percent, listed the person’s race, according to DMV statistics.

About a quarter of the people who chose to put race on their license were Native Americans, in a state where they account for just 1.6 percent of the population. In 2016, the General Assembly amended the law to make the designation clearer, allowing American Indians to include the abbreviation “AI” instead of “I” for Indian on their licenses.

“I think most American Indians are requesting that it be put on there,” Richardson said. “It’s a way of recognition, of holding on to that status in our society.”

It’s also important to have when American Indians hand their license to a police officer, said Richardson. Traffic tickets and other citations often list a person’s race.

“So the question often times is where does the officer get the race from?” he said. “Others should not be deciding what someone’s race is. It ought to be up to the individual.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

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