Race and the Automobile in American Life and Society

Race and the automobile have had long, intertwined histories in America. When Wendell Scott, the only African-American ever to win a major NASCAR race, took the checkered flag at Jacksonville, Florida, in 1963, his victory in this southern city at the height of the Civil Rights Movement was commemorated without the usual Victory Lane photographs and trophy kiss. Today, by contrast, NASCAR is actively attempting to develop black drivers and crews and to attract black fans. However revealing, such an anecdote merely hints at the larger intersection between cars and racial issues.

In his first essay, Thomas Sugrue charts the connections between the automobile, the automobile industry, and the geography of race in twentieth-century Detroit. The automobile industry’s presence in Detroit, and its decisions about the location of its factories, have had a profound impact on who lives where in the Motor City. And Detroit’s history, Sugrue shows, is both typical and idiosyncratic. In his second essay, Sugrue examines more closely the various ways in which the automobile has been part of African-American history and culture. This focus on blacks, particularly appropriate given Sugrue’s interest in Detroit, should not be taken to mean that the story of race and the car is solely an African-American one. As the movie The Fast and the Furious, with its multi-ethnic Los Angeles street racers, might suggest, an equally complex tale could be told of the car’s place in the worlds of Hispanics, Asians, or other groups.


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