Student & Teacher Resources

Driving While Black


I. Questions for Reading

1. What is “racial profiling”?

2. The phrase “driving while black” is meant to sound like “driving while intoxicated,” the law enforcement term for drunk driving. What do African Americans mean by the phrase “driving while black”?

3. In what ways did the freedom and personal mobility provided by the automobile have special significance for African Americans in the South during the years of racial segregation? In what ways was the ability of African Americans to travel nonetheless limited or constrained?

4. Sugrue contends that during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s “cars became the vehicles for protest and racial conflict alike.” What roles did cars play in civil rights protests? In racial conflict?

5. In what ways has the car had meanings for blacks and black culture similar to the meanings it has for whites and white culture? In what ways has it had a “special status,” according to Sugrue?

6. Sugrue says that while black culture has celebrated the fancy, expensive cars of African American celebrities, the reality for most blacks is much different. What are some of the examples Sugrue gives to support this claim? What particular effect has suburban sprawl, and the movement of jobs from cities to suburban areas, had on African Americans?

7. What specific examples of discrimination have African Americans tended to face as employees and would-be employees of automakers? What factors made the early 1940s a period of increasing African American employment in the auto industry? What effects did decentralization and automation in the auto industry have on African Americans in the 1950s and 60s?

8. In what ways did African Americans working in auto factories in the 1960s and 70s reflect black political interests and activism of this period?

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II. Questions for Discussion

1. Sugrue says at the end of his Introduction that “African Americans have had a complex, often ambivalent relationship to the car and to the automobile industry.” What does Sugrue mean by that? Do your own experiences, observations, and/or conversations confirm Sugrue’s view? Can the same be said of the relationship between other ethnic groups, such as Hispanics or Arab-Americans or Asian-Americans, and the automobile?

2. What are the legal and moral issues surrounding “racial profiling”? Is it something that should be banned under all circumstances, or are there instances in which it would be appropriate?

3. Sugrue refers to “the problem of persistent racial inequality in modern America” even after racial discrimination was made illegal. In what ways does racial inequality still exist in the U.S. ? What, according to Sugure, are some of the car-related examples of this continuing racial inequality? How might such car-related racial inequality be reduced or eliminated?

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III. Making Connections

1. Like African Americans, women have faced obstacles to, and enjoyed special benefits from, driving and owning cars. Based on the accounts provided by Margaret Walsh and Virginia Scharff, are the experiences of women and African Americans more similar or more different?

2. In the Introduction to “An Economic ‘Frankenstein,’” Stephen Meyer says he will tell the story of automation at Ford in the 1950s through the eyes of workers rather than national UAW leaders or Ford officials. In what ways does Meyer’s depiction of workers’ responses to the introduction of automated machinery at Ford’s Brook Park plant supplement Sugrue’s view that workers’ basic concern was about the loss of jobs? How does Sugrue’s discussion of automation’s effect on black workers supplement Meyer’s depiction?

3. Martin Melosi, in “The Automobile Shapes the City,” discusses the ways in which the automobile itself, and the highways built to accommodate it, contributed to the development of suburbs and the decline of core cities. In both of his essays, Sugrue discusses the role of the automobile industry in this process. (As in so many other ways, the auto industry helped launch a trend when it began building new factories in rural and suburban areas as part of its decentralization in the 1950s.) Put these two elements together: how did the automobile industry’s decentralization depend on automobiles and highways?

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IV. Questions for Writing

1. Examine the cover and opening 7 pages of the Negro Motorist Green Book for 1949. What does the information presented in these pages tell us about being a black driver or traveler in 1949?

2. Examine the business listings for your state and/or city in the Negro Motorist Green Book for 1949. What do these listings suggest about the existence and demand for services catering to blacks living in or visiting your area in that year? What might they imply about race relations at that time in your area? You might also compare/contrast the listings in your state or city with the listings from a very different part of the country.

3. Sugrue argues that “Black popular culture appropriated the automobile—as both a symbol of the American ‘good life’ and as a sign of a distinctive, separate black culture.” Analyze one or more of the examples he cites—Motown performers and songs, “blaxploitation” films of the 1970s, in the work of African American rap or hip-hop artists—or select one of your own. Is Sugrue’s claim borne out by your example?

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V. Questions for Research

1. Sugrue notes that the 1964 uprising in the Watts district of south-central Los Angeles began when police pulled over a black woman suspected of drunk driving. Twenty-eight years later, south-central L.A. erupted again after the acquittal of four police officers charged with beating African American motorist Rodney King during a traffic stop. Investigate both of these events. How did race and cars come together in each? What do they reveal about “driving while black”?

2. Select a major metropolitan area and research its public transport system (buses, subways, trains, ferries, etc.). Would it be possible for a poor city resident who doesn’t own a car to get from his or her neighborhood to a job at, say, a suburban mall or office complex? How long would it take? How much would it cost?

3. Sugrue refers briefly to “Revolutionary Union Movements” formed by black workers in various auto plants in the late 1960s. Investigate these RUMs. How many were there? Where did they first appear? What were their purposes and goals? How influential were they? What happened to them?

4. Berry Gordy, the founder of Detroit-based Motown Records, based his idea for the company on his experiences as an assembly-line worker: “My own dream for a hit factory was shaped by principles I learned on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line. At the plant, cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line—brand spanking new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records. I wanted a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist . . . a star!” Research the history of Motown Records in the 1960s. In what specific ways did Gordy make Motown like a Lincoln-Mercury assembly plant?

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For other Resources on Race see:

From Motor City to Motor Metropolis

Driving While Black


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