In my Identities article, ‘Automatic transmission: ethnicity, racialization and the car’, I discussed how various types of racism can be transmitted through cars and roads, and feed into driver behaviour. While this can result in racial discrimination operating in formal and legal contexts, such as policing, racialisation through cars has a much broader, and at times, arguably banal, normative and taken for granted presence and reach.
In ethnically diverse towns and cities in the UK, when expensive cars are driven by young non-white males, what appears to be ordinary (driving and cars) becomes subject to racialised logic – that certain behaviours are tied to what become normative expectations of the ethnic group in question. In part, this happens because of what cars do and do not signify, but also, of course, this hinges on existing codes, stereotypes and ways of perceiving and explaining the idea of race, and all that flows from it.
Earlier in 2020, we learnt that a number of prominent Black Britons, including MP Dawn Butler, had experienced, and subsequently spoke out about, racist policing. As distressing as such events are they are not particularly unusual; every day, black bodies are subject to similar, and worse, attention from law enforcement. In some cases, of course, the police may well have legitimate grounds to pull over a suspect, but often, it is the marker of race that helps prompt or even provoke the intervention.
And this is not the arguably old, simplistic and direct form of racism that people of my generation faced in our youth. Today, officers may be less likely to use racial slurs, perhaps perceiving neither themselves not their professional practice as even remotely racist. Instead, they can situate their working routines as elements of their professional identity; they have grounded knowledge of their local patch, and are expected to see and respond to the unusual, and extraordinary.
However, race as an idea continues to linger, and is ever coiled, in a state of potential, waiting to be called upon as and when the need arises. So when there is especially discussion of black males in the context of crime and criminality, at some point, the salience of race – as biology, culture or even politics – comes into place. Whether we like to admit it or not, race – like gender, class, age and any other broad marker through which identity can be categorised – has meaning, and with that comes expectation as well.
On the road, while we see cars, we also visualise the kind of people driving them. The same car, driven at the same time and on the same roads, but by two very different people yields very different reactions: distinguished looking white male driving a car worth £50,000 is read very differently to a young black man driving the same vehicle. The car, therefore, has become an empty, but also open and fluid signifier, with each car and especially its driver being subject to a range of context-informed meaning and interpretation. Perhaps underscoring, or even giving rise to racist policing practice on the road is the car itself – that some cars, by virtue of what they represent, provoke enough suspicion to warrant police attention.
In my city, Bradford, there is a propensity to associate a significant proportion of young Pakistani heritage males, who have a penchant for expensive cars (or at least expensive looking cars), with criminal enterprise. The flawed but prevalent associations between criminality and race are of course very well established – whether we are referring to the US, Europe or indeed any context where racial ‘others’ have been identified and then subjected to further marginalisation and discrimination.
Over time and through repeated rehearsals, racialised stereotypes and narratives become highly meaningful and form shortcuts, underpinned with logic and experience, with each reinforcing the other. Ultimately, such skewed modes of thought, while rooted in racist discourse, constitute conventional logic and help form normative, rational and ‘neutral’ ways of seeing the world.
In the wider discourse today, if not criminals from the outset, young non-white males are more than occasionally represented as educational and economic underachievers, living in what are purported to be economically, and in some cases, culturally deprived neighbourhoods. With this context firmly embedded through political, academic and media discourse, it’s easy – even for those who pride themselves as not being racist – to reach racialised conclusions, wherein a person’s ethnicity conflates with certain expectations and behaviours. Hence, young black men driving expensive cars are often seen as gangsters, drug dealers or otherwise enjoying a life of crime.
The stop and search experiences of Dawn Butler MP and the athlete Bianca Williams reinforce the view that if you’re not white, then you may be subject to disproportional policing when on the road. For those of us who have been subject to a purportedly benign ‘routine stop’ by the police, it feels like there is nothing routine about it. Again, this is not new. In the early 2000s, at a time when the state was at least aspiring to delegitimise the presence and force of institutional racism, Lord Taylor of Warwick, Lord Herman Ouseley and Dr John Sentamu went public about their experiences of unjustifiable stop and search. Close to two decades later, little seems to have changed; racism endures. If you are subject to this kind of policing, and unless you have a public profile or relevant and significant forms of capital, there isn’t much you can do about it other than simply accept it as a fact of life.
Cars do not cause racism, but they do allow centuries worth of embedded race thinking to seep through and surface; cars literally become vehicles through which racialisation operates in the perceptions and behaviours of drivers and non-drivers alike. Policing is often subject to criticism, and perhaps an easy target. After all, it is worth bearing in mind that all social institutions are subject to the same historical, political and ideological underpinnings which in turn enable the transmission of race, and racism, even today.
No wonder that black people (in the UK and US) are still more likely to be stopped, warned, arrested, charged and then sentenced in comparison to their white counterparts for the same alleged crimes. Given the prominence of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, there may be hope that some of the systemic deficiencies may be addressed, but this will need more than hashtagging, retweeting and public awareness. After all, it is not as if the existence and impact of racism, whether in the US or elsewhere, has come as a surprise.
In order to help overcome the racist processes and outcomes, there is mileage in shifting broader cultural attitudes, and acknowledging racially primed shortcuts for what they are. Legislation has a role, but so too does a willingness to affirm the presence of racism, and demonstrable, active and mainstream commitments to its eradication. Law enforcement strategy in particular needs modification in order to ensure policing at the operational level is mindful of not only personal and collective stereotypical prejudice, but the force of institutional, structural, as well as normative – arguably banal – forms of racism.
I discuss these, and a range of related features, including the salience of taste, the influence of popular culture within and through the connections between cars, race and class in my recent book.
Blog post by Yunis Alam, University of Bradford, UK
Read the full article: Alam, Yunis. Automatic transmission: ethnicity, racialization and the car. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2016.1232197