Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America

by Thomas J. Sugrue


In the spring of 1998, New Jersey state police pulled over a van on the state turnpike carrying four young black men on their way to basketball tryouts at North Carolina Central University. What happened next was the subject of debate: the men claimed to be cooperating, but police charged that the van's driver, in an act of rage, backed up and attempted to run them over. The result was bloodshed. The police fired and three of the four occupants of the van were wounded. When the police searched the van, they found no weapons, no drugs, nothing but basketball equipment and a bible.

The New Jersey Turnpike shooting generated protests and demands for state and federal investigations of the New Jersey state police. Unwittingly the van drivers and the police reopened an intense national debate about "racial profiling"--the allegation that law enforcement officials target certain groups because of their race or ethnicity. The debate hinged around one of the most important and contested arenas of race relations in modern America--the automobile.

Complaints of the police "profiling" black and Hispanic drivers were nothing new, either in New Jersey or in the nation as a whole. African Americans had long complained about being pulled over for what they sardonically called "driving while black." Civil rights organizations regularly fielded complaints by black and Hispanic motorists who charged that they had been pulled over for minor traffic infractions or for no apparent reason at all. One African American doctor who owned a gold-colored BMW reported that he had been stopped about fifty times in his travels through New Jersey but never issued a ticket. The very fact that he was a black man in a flashy car attracted the attention of the police. The local and national news media uncovered dozens of such stories, but New Jersey state officials continued to deny charges that the state police engaged in racial profiling and defended police conduct as nondiscriminatory.

Under increasing public pressure, the New Jersey State Attorney General established a task force in 1999 to investigate complaints of racial profiling. Many civil rights activists were skeptical about the objectivity of a report to be issued by the same state officials who had vocally defended police conduct on the state highways. They were surprised. The State Attorney General's Task Force report on racial profiling made national headlines, especially for its grim and convincing picture of the prevalence of racial profiling on New Jersey's highways. Drawing from 1997-98 data, state officials found that forty percent of traffic stops involved black and Hispanic motorists (who were only about thirteen percent of all drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike). Eighty percent of those arrested during traffic stops were people of color. The profiling debate brought the problem of racial profiling to national attention, led to the resignation of the state's top police official, and prompted state governments in New Jersey and elsewhere to rewrite regulations to forbid police officers from singling out drivers because of their race or ethnicity.

The phenomenon of being pulled over for "driving while black" highlights the connections between the history of the automobile and the history of African Americans. The twentieth-century transformations of black America--the rise and fall of Jim Crow, the Great Migration of blacks from south to the north, the dramatic growth in the black industrial labor force, and the rise of a black-oriented consumer culture--all of these coincided and were shaped by the rise of the automobile. From its earliest days, the automobile symbolized mobility and freedom for blacks--but at the same time also reinforced their status as unfree. For African Americans in the twentieth century, cars became a powerful symbol of "making it," of economic success. Just as importantly, the auto industry became one of the nation's largest and most important employers of African Americans. But as the New Jersey racial profiling cases made so clear, African Americans have had a complex, often ambivalent relationship to the car and to the automobile industry.

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The Car and Jim Crow
"Drivin' Down the Freeway": Blacks and Car Culture
Image Versus Reality
On the Line: Blacks and Auto Work
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