Racialising The Private Car

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

Portrayed as the ‘great equaliser’, the consumption of private cars in the US is a mobility paradigm rooted in ideas of individualism, independence, and status. Yet far from being an equaliser, the car is a key player in deepening social inequalities at multiple and overlapping scales along axes of socioeconomic status, race and geographic location. Through a critical race perspective, I will analyse how the private car is a product of neoliberal political agendas that is rooted in and continues to prioritise the mobility of the white middle classes at the expense of Black communities in the US.


Labelled the “largest public works project in the history of the world”, the 1956 Federal Highway Act that built highways during the interstate building boom of the 1950s and 1960s ‘unites’ the country through over one million miles of road, connecting citizens via the private car. The extensivity of the project cemented a ‘compulsory consumption’ of cars, whereby the only way to access and contribute to society except in a few transit-dense cities such as New York is by private vehicle. The necessitation of cars through building and maintaining car-friendly infrastructures reinforced neoliberal narratives of people as self-responsible individuals acting in rational ways by choosing a mode of transport that gives them the greatest net utility, as the car allows for the smoothest journeys.


However, the realities of this transport infrastructure as regulating and controlling communities deemed less desirable, namely Black communities living in areas often falsely denigrated as ghettos, highlights the deeply racist and political nature of the American highway system. Understanding that it is “no coincidence that the control of mobility is made foremost by those who have an interest in maintaining their own definition of order”, a critical race lens reveals the alienation and destruction of communities across the country to make way for the freeways along racialised axes. The planner policy of ‘redlining’ of majority-Black neighbourhoods through tarmac and asphalt reinforced physical segregations, a road-routing process which was so common that it was nicknamed by critics as “white roads through Black bedrooms”.


One example is West Baltimore, a historically Black neighbourhood that was bisected by State Route 40. This zone was labelled a ghetto by planners despite being a middle-class area. It was simply seen as a slum through the eyes of white observers due to the population being mostly Black. The devastation to Black and low-income communities by the US highway system was premised on neoliberalist agendas that adulated the private car and being individually mobile yet helped cement institutionally racist views and methods of control into America’s urban fabric, an enactment of sovereign power against Black communities to constrict and control.


The racialisation of mobility through the private car is further felt at an embodied scale, where ideas about status and economic success conflict with racist attitudes towards who should have access to private vehicles. The pressing concern of institutionalised racial profiling and violence within US law enforcement plays out in pretextual vehicle stops, indicating a racial 'necropolitics’ to driving whereby the colour of the driver’s skin dictates whether they may live, face an altercation, or even die. The pervasiveness of this surveillance and policing practice of disciplinary power, sardonically labelled “driving while Black”, stems from the escalation of the war on drugs which targeted Black and ethnic minority communities disproportionately.


State documents released by New Jersey in 2000 revealed police training memos instructing officers to make racial judgments in order to identify potential drug traffickers on the highway, highlighting the institutionalised synonymising of non-whiteness and driving with criminality. The celebration of the private car as a symbol of individuation and freedom is thus a problematic generalisation, pertaining only to unmarked white populations who are able to drive without concerned of being stopped due to their race. The private vehicle has become weaponised against Black bodies as a continuation of the control and exclusion instigated through the redlining agendas of the highway building boom over sixty years ago.


Further reading:

  1. Lutz, C., 2014. Cars and transport: The car-made city. A companion to urban anthropology, pp.142-53.

  2. Gilroy, P., 2001. Driving while black. Car cultures, pp.81-104.

  3. An, B., Orlando, A.W. and Rodnyansky, S., 2019. The physical legacy of racism: How redlining cemented the modern built environment. Available at SSRN 3500612.