Mobility, race, citizenship and Driving While Black

Steve Macek reviews the PBS documentary Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America and discusses the history of race and mobility in the United States.

As a white person living and working in the Chicago metropolitan region, I am constantly reminded of the degree to which race and racial segregation shapes the American urban landscape. The Chicago region remains one of the most racially segregated urban areas in the country, exhibiting persistently high levels of African-American-white segregation and Latino-white segregation compared to other (often very segregated) US metropolitan areas. Race determines, to a significant extent, where residents of the Chicagoland area live, their social networks, their income and wealth, the educational opportunities they enjoy, their relationship to the criminal justice system and the police, their access to medical care and other public services, and their overall life expectancy. Race constrains where people in Chicago work, eat, worship and play. Above all, race circumscribes where people can go — and specifically limits where in the region it is safe for Black people to drive or stop for gas. Thanks in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the waves of grassroots protest that erupted after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor over the summer of 2020, the corporate media have — at long last — devoted more resources to reporting on the devastating impact of racial segregation and structural racism on communities of color in Chicago, as well as other large cities.

The dynamics of race and mobility are still not part of the public discourse or the national political debate

Yet, even in the midst of a national conversation about race and racism, the ways that race, racial inequality and discrimination limit people of color’s access to transportation and constrict their freedom of movement continue to be ignored by the dominant media as well as by policy makers and politicians.  For instance, the dramatic deterioration of the nation’s urban public transit systems rarely merits a mention by big (suburban-oriented) corporate news outlets (although there have been a few notable exceptions). No doubt, the fact that this deterioration disproportionately affects urban-dwelling Blacks and Latinos, who are far more likely to take public transit on a regular basis than white urban residents, has a lot to do with this. Similarly, while the recent outcry over systemic racial bias in policing has focused increased media attention on research showing that African American drivers are far more likely to be stopped, ticketed and arrested than white drivers, the enormous body of evidence documenting huge disparities in traffic stops by race turned up by every single scholarly study on the subject ought to be covered more regularly and in greater depth. One such study, of some twenty million traffic stops by police in the state of North Carolina over a 14-year period, revealed that Black drivers were 63% more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers, even though Black people on average drive 16% less. These stunning findings inspired an interview with the researchers published in the New York Times and a smattering of op-eds in a few big newspapers, but received no attention whatsoever on network TV or cable news programs.  Suffice it to say, the dynamics of race and mobility are still not part of the public discourse or the national political debate.

That is why the recently released PBS documentary Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America — first broadcast in October 2020 — is such a welcome and significant intervention. Directed by Ric Burns (creator of the excellent multi-part docuseries New York: A Documentary Film), and based on a book by curator and historian Gretchen Sorin, the film probes the development and persistence of racial barriers to African Americans’ mobility from their origins in pre-Civil War slavery through the Jim Crow era to the present. Weaving together historical anecdotes, archival footage, personal stories and interviews with eminent historians of race, transportation and cities like Eric Avila, Allyson Hobbs, Herb Boyd, Craig Steven Wilder, Kenneth Jackson, and Thomas Sugrue, the documentary in particular highlights the double (and contradictory) meaning of the road and the automobile for Black people throughout much of American history: on the one hand, the car (and the highway) held out for Black people the promise of freedom, the ability to relocate (away from the harsh repression of the South), and the possibility of escape from the day-to-day humiliation of segregated buses and trains; on the other hand, Black motorists traveled — and continue to travel — the roadways in constant fear of being pulled over and harassed, or sometimes killed, by police.

From Slave Patrols to Jim Crow

Freedom of mobility and acceptance on the open road has, of course, long been denied to many groups considered by the dominant culture to be less-than and not fully equal — women, youth, the poor and the homeless.1 In his 2008 book Mobility without Mayhem: Safety, Cars and Citizenship, Jeremy Packer investigates how the mobility of groups that have been “othered” or socially disempowered in various ways — women, African-Americans, young people, motorcyclists — has been consistently framed by authorities as a threat to public safety that must be contained. See Jeremy Packer, Mobility without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2008). But no group in U.S. society has been denied freedom of movement as completely, and for such a huge swath of the nation’s history, as African Americans.

Freedom of mobility and acceptance on the open road has long been denied to many groups considered by the dominant culture to be less-than and not fully equal

Driving While Black begins by reminding us that brutal restrictions on the freedom of movement of enslaved peoples formed part of the basic foundation of the chattel slavery system. As Sorin explains early on in the film, in the South, “many enslaved Africans never left a one mile area in their entire life because they were constrained to that plantation or that farm.”  This point is underscored by audio from a remarkable 1949 recording of a formerly enslaved man, Fountain Hughes, explaining that when he was enslaved he could not move about in public without a note or a “pass” from his master; Hughes’ narration is run over a montage of photographs of daily life on plantations, an image of a handwritten “pass” and a shot of the mangled back of an enslaved man who has been whipped.

As Sorin and the other expert interviewees explain, restrictions on the movement of enslaved people were enforced by the notorious “slave patrols,” whose job it was to prevent the enslaved from fleeing to the North in search of freedom.  Sorin and Craig Steven Wilder both make the point that laws in the antebellum North also imposed various limits on Black people’s movement.

In the post-Civil War period, African American mobility increased dramatically as formerly enslaved people abandoned plantations en masse. The backlash by white planters — who depended on Black labor to plant and harvest their cotton and tobacco — was swift. As urban historian Thomas Sugrue describes — over silent black and white footage of sharecroppers picking cotton— the ruling white elite used indebtedness, “the policing of roads” and surveillance of train stations to prevent Black sharecroppers from leaving the South. In addition, many Southern states passed vagrancy laws that made it easier to arrest and imprison Black workers who traveled away from their hometowns. Legal restrictions on Black freedom of movement were, of course, supplemented by the extra-legal terror of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings.

Photo of a segregated bus in Alabama. Source: Birmingham, Ala. Public Library Archives.

The construction of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation after the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s forced African Americans to ride in the least desirable cars on trains and at the back of buses. While these laws worked to constrain Black mobility throughout the South,  they also helped to spur the “Great Migration,” the mass migration of African Americans during the first half of the twentieth century from southern agricultural states to the cities of the industrial North and the West. The documentary cuts together sound bites from Sorin, Sugrue and others with voice actors solemnly reading excerpts from memoirs by noted African Americans such as Thurgood Marshall as well as a poem by Langston Hughes, the first-person voices personalizing the story of the indignities those who took part in this migration were escaping. 

The Coming of the Automobile and the Green Book

The rise of the automobile in the 1920s marked a definite turning point for African American mobility (and, because of the relatively high wages Black workers earned in the nascent auto industry, for African American prosperity). As Jackson comments, by the late 1920s, there was one automobile for every five Americans. Cars quickly became affordable even for blue-collar workers and offered African Americans an attractive alternative to segregated trains, buses and trolleys.

The documentary reveals that Black workers living in cities like Detroit and Chicago frequently took their newly-purchased cars to visit relatives in the South, employing in the process dozens of scenes from home movies and striking still photos of Black car owners proudly showing off their cars at reunions and other gatherings. But on the road in places like Georgia and Louisiana, Black motorists encountered systematic harassment and discrimination. The fact that African Americans traveling through the South were so often barred from public accommodation meant that they had to sleep in their cars and bring all of the food they needed for a journey with them in coolers.

The Negro Motorist Green Book, published throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s by postal carrier and travel writer Victor Hugo Green, contained listings of hundreds of hotels, restaurants and other conveniences African Americans could safely patronize while on the road.  The 2018 Hollywood movie The Green Book, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, did much to revive public interest in this travel guide (although some critics attacked the movie as a formulaic inter-racial buddy picture promoting a “white savior narrative”).

The centerpiece of Driving While Black, in some ways, is its treatment of the Green Book and the segregated Black roadside culture that the guide mapped.2National Museum of African American History and Culture post-doctoral fellow and historian of landscape architecture Jennifer Reut established the Mapping the Greenbook blog to map locations mentioned in various editions of The Green Book. See: Driving While Black takes viewers on a tour of forgotten gas stations, restaurants, resorts and hotels that catered to and provided a refuge for African Americans on the road. Interviews with the former owners and patrons of these establishments express a wistful longing for a lost, segregated tourism culture supported by Black-owned hospitality businesses. Ironically, the success of the civil rights movement and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws destroyed many of these once-thriving businesses.  

The Coming of the Interstate Highways and the Demolition of Black Neighborhoods

The documentary moves on to deftly explore how the construction of the interstate highway system from late 1950s through the 1970s led to the decimation of many vibrant Black urban neighborhoods. Federal highway construction was coordinated from the outset with a federal program of slum clearance, and the vast majority of those urban areas designated as “slums” or “blighted” were majority African American. Moreover, because redlining by banks and the Federal Housing Administration suppressed property values in neighborhoods with even just a few Black residents, building highways through largely African American areas was also extremely cost-effective.  As historian Eric Avila puts it in the film, such neighborhoods became “the sacrificial lambs” slaughtered to make way for the new thruways.

This point is driven home by journalist, writer and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie, who discusses the impact of highway construction on his hometown of New Orleans, where an expressway was bulldozed directly through the heart of Faubourg Tremé, the oldest Black neighborhood in America.  While Elie speaks, we are shown images of what was destroyed in the process.3Tremé is the subject of an unfairly overlooked documentary, Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, directed by Dawn Logsdon and written by Ellie. See: The expressway eliminated a beautiful parkway lined with old oak trees and other elements of a once bustling community. At no point, one New Orleans resident explains, were members of the community consulted.  

African Americans responded to the erasure of their once flourishing urban enclaves by attempting to restore life to the “dead spaces” created by the freeways via public art and festivals

Though these new highways gave (largely white) suburbanites easy access to the downtowns of big cities, they transformed many inner-city neighborhoods into desolate zones of abandoned buildings and vacant lots overshadowed by ugly concrete overpasses. African Americans responded to the erasure of their once flourishing urban enclaves by attempting to restore life to the “dead spaces” created by the freeways via public art and festivals.4For more on the ways people of color have attempted to reclaim the space under freeways for their communities, see Eric Avila’s The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 149-179. Driving While Black intercuts an interview with Avila talking about the creative ways displaced residents of demolished Black neighborhoods have memorialized and commemorated their lost neighborhoods with shots of community murals painted on overpasses.   

Racial Profiling on the Road

In in its final twenty minutes or so, Driving While Black’s narrative focus finally shifts to the present and to the reality of persistent racial profiling of Black drivers by police. While much of the information presented in this closing section will come as no surprise to anyone aware of the racial injustices that continue to tarnish our society, it supplies some of the most powerful moments in the documentary; indeed, part of the undeniable power of this concluding section stems from the way the film successfully connects today’s headlines to the publicly unacknowledged centuries-long history of race and mobility in this country.  As interviewees discuss what it means to be stopped for “driving while Black” or share anecdotes about the “talk” Black parents have with their children about how to survive an encounter with police in the voice-over, on screen we see a montage of video clips and images of black people being pulled over, dragged from their vehicles, beaten, arrested and shot. The video footage featured here is horribly familiar, a hideous visual reminder of just how commonplace it is for us to see Black bodies violated and destroyed by white men in uniform on our various screens. Video of a number of notorious and widely televised police assaults on African American motorists is included: Rodney King, Richard Hubbard, Iesha Harper, Philando Castile, Derrick Thompson, Sandra Bland, and Jacob Blake, the most recent victim, shot in the back seven times by a cop during an August 23, 2020 incident in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  As one interviewee notes, the omnipresence of cell phones and other recordings devices has finally made visible to the whole country what African-Americans have always known was happening (in a way that parallels how, during the 1960s, TV made the entire country aware of police violence against civil rights protestors in places like Birmingham, Alabama).

Motorist Robert Morton detained by a Mississippi Highway Patrol officer. Source: Porsha Shields via Facebook.

The omnipresence of cell phones and other recordings devices has finally made visible to the whole country what African-Americans have always known was happening

The emotional impact of the footage of African American drivers being brutalized by the cops is amplified by interviewees speaking about the pain, fear and anxiety associated with being targeted for driving while Black. The most poignant testimony comes from Christopher West, a professor at Pasadena City College and former history curator for the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Explaining that he has a 17 year-old son, he asks the viewer: “How would you feel if you were concerned about your child being taken, life ended, and when after all the investigation is done, the reason why the life was ended was because there was a man with a gun who was afraid for his life, and because he was a police officer, and because my son didn’t comply, whatever that means, he would end up dead? Tell me how you would feel if that was a real risk every day.” West becomes choked up while speaking and observes tearfully, “to me, driving while Black is at its core driving while afraid….And if I have to fear the State, am I member of this society?” It is an absolutely devastating scene and is immediately followed by video of Letetra Widman, Jacob Blake’s sister, at a press conference telling reporters, “I have been watching police murder people that look like me for years…I am not sad. I don’t want your pity. I want change.” It is a fitting conclusion to the film.

Caveats and Concerns

While Driving While Black is an informative and at times moving examination of the interconnections between race, mobility, the automobile, policing and urban space, it is not without its shortcomings. To begin with, it is a static film about movement.  Ric Burns’s style — conservative talking head shots, heavy reliance on still images, a deliberate, sometimes overly slow editing pace — creates an odd contradiction between the documentary’s form and its content, particularly in some of the earlier parts of the film.

But a more substantive problem with Driving While Black is one that is quite common to PBS documentaries: it pulls its punches. And by that I mean, it fails to draw out or draw attention to the glaring political and policy implications of the powerful story it tells. Surely, one implication of the evidence of systematic racial discrimination and harassment by police presented here is that we need fewer cops monitoring our movements and that those officers we do allow to patrol our roads should be stripped of the qualified immunity which allows them to beat and kill Black people with impunity. Similarly, the film’s creators missed an opportunity to comment on the racist underpinnings of our nation’s malignant neglect of public transit and advocate for greater investment in urban, Black- and Latino-serving light rail, subways and buses.

Still, faulting a documentary for what it leaves out is often the cheapest and laziest form of criticism. Ultimately, Driving While Black is an edifying journey through a past and a topic that has been left out of public discussion for far too long. By uncovering the meaning and history of Black mobility, by dramatizing how the car has contributed to our racially-divided geography, and by raising awareness about the grave threat of violence that still hangs over the head of African Americans on the road, Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns have done us all a great service.


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