Driving While Black: Race and American Automobility

  In recent years, racial profiling, or the use of race as the basis of law enforcement decisions, has diminished on a nationwide basis but persisted in specific jurisdictions....

End Police Brutality


In recent years, racial profiling, or the use of race as the basis of law enforcement decisions, has diminished on a nationwide basis but persisted in specific jurisdictions. Although this phenomenon has generated significant research and sparked media attention within the last decade due to high profile cases of police brutality, the roots of racial profiling date back to the advent of cars. This paper aims to discuss why the occurrence of racial profiling is more spatially confined to specific communities today and to what depth racial bias has permeated “car culture” since its inception. Racial profiling, in addition to being entwined in our biased criminal justice system, is embedded in our social structures, ideologies, and environments and thus influences our perception of American automobility and media.


“Driving While Black” defines the experiences people of color face today as motorists because of their race and places the phenomenon front and center in a long history of racial inequality in transportation. A “black highway consciousness” was formally developed after the mass advent of cars and alerted black drivers to police harassment and segregated roadside mechanical and medical aid, food, and shelter (Seiler, pg. 108).Today, criminal justice practitioners’ use of discretion is often unintentionally influenced by racial bias. Police officers are more likely to stop black and Hispanic drivers for investigative reasons, search their vehicles, and arrest them. According to nationwide surveys released in 2012, black and Hispanic motorists, once pulled over, were three times as likely as whites to be searched and blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested (Harris, pg. 8). People of color, additionally, have receive higher car interest rates, higher prices in used car lot operations, in auto repair quotes, and higher insurance rates. Used cars lots, such as J.D. Byrider, have been known to set up shop in depressed neighborhoods in order to target those with poor credit ratings or those ineligible for car loans because they don’t have established credit. The placement of transportation routes also has a disparate impact on communities of color and communities of lower socio-economic status.


The Back on the Road CA coalition was started to bring light to the issue of racial bias in policing and traffic courts in the state of Califronia. In Los Angeles County, “Black people are 9.2% of the population yet 33% of those arrested for driving with a suspended license” (Stopped, Fined, Arrested). White individuals make up roughly 27 % of the county’s residents yet account for around only 15% of people arrested for driving with a suspended license. This shows that arrests of Black and Latino individuals happens in specific neighborhoods with high poverty rates, low household incomes, and low unemployment rates. The fees and fines that these communities rack up end up pushing them further into poverty. A two-tiered system, that favors those with money and disenfranchise those without, has emerged in traffic courts in state of California and in numerous other states.


The relationship between environmental injustice issue and transportation planning, also, can’t be ignored when talking about race and automobility. The Peace Bridge, which transects through the West Side neighborhood of Buffalo, NY, has negatively affected the multi-racial communities that reside directly adjacent to it since the implementation of NAFTA. The heightened traffic flow through this NAFTA corridor increased asthma rates and point-source respirable particulate air pollution between the years of 1996 and 2000 (Oyana, Rogerson, Lwebuga-Musaka, 2004). And lastly, Vermont, as a predominantly white, rural state, is not immune to instances of racial profiling and racial injustice. In fact, a roughly five-year study (from 2010-2015) of Vermont State Police released by Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice found that non-white drivers, blacks in particular, were more likely to be stopped, given citations, and searched than white drivers (McDevitt, Iwama, 2016.).The Institute on Race and Justice recommended that Vermont State Police develop an in-service training program to address any enforcement practices that are bias and continual monitoring of enforcement practices. Therefore, achieving familiarity and cultural competency in multi-ethnic and multi-racial communities like Burlington, VT is still a work in progress. Across the nation, municipal and state law enforcement agencies must continue to make progress in their communities through progressive training, inclusive community outreach, and the continual monitoring of current police practices.




Ayes, I., & Siegelman, P. (1995). Race and Gender Discrimination in Bargaining for a New Car. The American Economic Review, Vol. 85, No. 3. pp. 304-321. American Economic Association. Nashville, TN.


Bernstein, A., Solomon, N., Yuen, L., & Miner, C. (n.d.). Back of the Bus: Mass transit, race and inequality. WNYC: New York Public Radio.


Ghandnoosh, N. (2015). Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System. The Sentencing Project. Washington, D.C.


Harris, D. (2012). Hearing on “Ending Racial Profiling in America,” Testimony of David A. Harris. United States Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights.


LaFraniere, S. & Lehren, A. W. (2015). The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black. New York Times.


Lutz, C., & Fernandez Lutz, A. (2010). Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobiles & Its Effect on Our Lives. New York City, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.


McDevitt, J., & Iwama, J. (2016). Vermont State Police: An Examination of Traffic Stop Data – July 1, 2010- December 31, 2015. Institute on Race and Justice. Northeastern University.


Office of the Missouri Attorney General (2014). Racial Profiling Data/2013: Ferguson Police Department


Oyana, T.J., Rogerson, P., & Lwebuga-Musaka, J.S. (2004). Geographic Clustering of Adult Asthma Hospitalization and Residential Exposure to Pollution at a United States–Canada Border Crossing. Am J Public Health. 94(7): 1250–1257.


Seiler, C. (2008). The Republic of Drivers. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press


Stopped, Fined, Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California – East Bay Community Law Center. (n.d.).

Thompson, D. (2013). The Price Is Racist: When Minorities (and Women) Are Asked to Pay More. The Atlantic.

Human Rights Council on racial profiling


Student Author: Amber Vaillancourt (University of Vermont)

Bio: I’m an undergraduate student who aspires to be a city planner that focuses on issues of affordable housing, climate change, public space, transportation, schooling, and food access in the hopes of creating healthier, more sustainable, and social just cities.


Faculty Evaluator:  Dr. Rob Williams (University of Vermont)


The Latest from GCMLP
  • One, Two, Three States Yer Out

    Israel’s total occupation of Palestine began 50 years ago, following the Six-Day War. With blessings from Washington, Israel’s occupation has expanded and threatens the very existence of Palestine. On...
    September 21, 2017
  • Who’s the Target?

    The Impact Advertising Has on Children
    August 22, 2017
  • The TV Generation

    Prevalence of Sexual Content in Teen-Oriented Media
    August 22, 2017


  • Who’s the Target?

    Advertisers often heavily target children. Why is this? Strasburger, Wilson, and Jordan (2014), authors of Children, Adolescents and the Media (2014) say that there are at least three reasons....
  • The TV Generation

    Media have changed and adapted dramatically from past decades. While there used to be a limited number of TV channels, there are now hundreds of stations, which teens can...
  • The Marginalization & Exploitation of Women in the Sports Media Industry

    Written by Tim Pritchard Women have always played an important role in the world of sports. Some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen have been women....
  • Plastic Free July

    Plastic Free July, like Earth Day, is an annual reminder of what we need to do every day: reduce and work to eliminate plastic from our lives.  Plastic is...