In American consumer lore, the automobile has always been a “freedom machine” and liberty lies on the open road. “Americans are a race of independent people” whose “ancestors came to this country for the sake of freedom and adventure,” the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce’s soon-to-be-president, Roy Chapin, declared in 1924. “The automobile satisfies these instincts.” During the Cold War, vehicles with baroque tail fins and oodles of surplus chrome rolled off the assembly line, with Native American names like Pontiac, Apache, Dakota, Cherokee, Thunderbird and Winnebago — the ultimate expressions of capitalist triumph and Manifest Destiny.
But for many low-income and minority Americans, automobiles have been turbo-boosted engines of inequality, immobilizing their owners with debt, increasing their exposure to hostile law enforcement, and in general accelerating the forces that drive apart haves and have-nots.
Though progressive in intent, the Biden administration’s signature legislative achievements on infrastructure and climate change will further entrench the nation’s staunch commitment to car production, ownership and use. The recent Inflation Reduction Act offers subsidies for many kinds of vehicles using alternative fuel, and should result in real reductions in emissions, but it includes essentially no direct incentives for public transit — by far the most effective means of decarbonizing transport. And without comprehensive policy efforts to eliminate discriminatory policing and predatory lending, merely shifting to electric from combustion will do nothing to reduce car owners’ ever-growing risk of falling into legal and financial jeopardy, especially those who are poor or Black.
By the 1940s, African American car owners had more reason than anyone to see their vehicles as freedom machines, as a means to escape, however temporarily, redlined urban ghettos in the North or segregated towns in the South. But their progress on roads outside of the metro core was regularly obstructed by the police, threatened by vigilante assaults, and stymied by owners of whites-only restaurants, lodgings and gas stations. Courts granted the police vast discretionary authority to stop and search for any one of hundreds of code violations — powers that they did not apply evenly. Today, officers make more than 50,000 traffic stops a day. “Driving while Black” has become a major route to incarceration — or much worse. When Daunte Wright was killed by a police officer in April 2021, he had been pulled over for an expired registration tag on his car’s license plate. He joined the long list of Black drivers whose violent and premature deaths at the hands of police were set in motion by a minor traffic infraction — Sandra Bland (failure to use a turn signal), Maurice Gordon (alleged speeding), Samuel DuBose (missing front license plate), and Philando Castile and Walter Scott (broken taillights) among them. Despite widespread criticism of the flimsy pretexts used to justify traffic stops, and the increasing availability of cellphone or police body cam videos, the most recent data shows that the number of deaths from police-driver interactions is almost as high as it has been over the past five years.