When MotorTrend first hit newsstands in 1949, discriminatory Jim Crow laws were commonplace in much of America. Although the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation, institutional racism toward Black drivers persists in more insidious ways even today. The recent protests following the killing of George Floyd and others show that to be the case.
Last week, MotorTrend traced the history of Black motorists battling Jim Crow laws. This legalized prejudice banned them from driving in certain towns after sunset and dictated where they could (and couldn’t) lodge, dine, or pump gas. And, terrifyingly, if they got in an accident, which hospitals would treat them. We also profiled one of the pioneering Black drivers in auto racing, and the barriers he faced.
Some of you will read this and say, “Stay out of politics. Stick to cars.”
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Like it or not, the automotive industry is incontrovertibly linked to politics. Laws passed by politicians dictate what we drive, where we drive, and how fast we drive. But I’d argue this is above politics. This is a human rights issue.
In publishing these articles, MotorTrend seeks to educate and raise awareness of a social stain on the American fabric. We hope to challenge presumptions, prompt deep conversations, and bring about constructive action.
For whites, a traffic stop is almost always transactional. But the Black experience often carries a menace of tension, harassment, or violence. It’s also not just with the police. Black drivers well know “the look” as they drive through an unfamiliar neighborhood. And most Black Americans clearly recall “the talk” they heard from their parents the day they got their driver’s license.
Despite efforts by leaders in government and law enforcement to root out this type of systemic racism, independent studies repeatedly show racial profiling and discrimination continues today.
The Stanford Open Policing Project studied more than 200 million traffic stops and found clear indication of racial bias in who was stopped, why they were stopped, and what subsequent interactions occurred. A study by Nature: Human Behavior of 100 million traffic stops carried out by 21 state patrol agencies and 35 municipal police departments over almost a decade found similar bias. In addition, reports from Illinois in 2013, Missouri in 2017, and other states have shown similar local and regional trends—even when the studies controlled for areas patrolled and crime statistics by race.
In July 2016, the lone Black Republican U.S. Senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, addressed the issue on the floor of Congress: “In the course of one year (in Washington, D.C. ), I have been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers. The vast majority of the time I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial. Imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops.”
In a 2018 interview with National Geographic, Robert F. Smith, a private-equity giant with a net worth of $5 billion, said he has been pulled over “more times than I care to remember.”
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Gretchen Sorin, esteemed college professor and author of Driving While Black (which we excerpted for our story of the same title), has devoted years to researching the history of Black motoring in America. Her husband, who is white, had been driving their Lexus with winter tires about a month after snowmelt in upstate New York. Never drew a second glance from police. The first time Gretchen borrowed the car, police pulled her over … allegedly because of her tires.
MotorTrend is not anti-law enforcement. It is necessary as part of civil society. We actively assist the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s Departments, and El Segundo Police Department, in identifying vehicles used in crimes. We also coordinate with the California Highway Patrol in creating many of our closed-course tests. More than a few of us at MotorTrend have relatives and close friends on the job. We understand the challenges law enforcement faces on a daily basis.
Our mission at MotorTrend is to cover the trends in cars and car culture. And if a segment of our society is restricted from enjoying motoring in the same way others can, then we need to talk about it, honestly and openly, and bring about change.
More by Mark Rechtin:
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- How MotorTrend Tests Cars Now
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