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Police car pulling over a driver.

Road rage, stop and search and vehicle stereotypes: why cars drive so much racism

Picture this for a moment, you’re in the car, tootling along, minding your own business – keeping a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front. All of a sudden some maniac in a loud vehicle comes along and neatly zips in front of you: “Bastard. Ignorant, selfish, bad mannered bastard”.

Your outburst may well be more sophisticated, but the point is, some behaviours can offend. Ordinarily, such encounters are part and parcel of the driving experience. But my research shows that something else sometimes occurs if the offending driver happens to not be white. Bastard can then mutate into “Paki”, “black” or “foreign bastard”.

As the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests have shown, racial bias, prejudice and discrimination very much still exists, but has, in some cases, become more subtle and complex in formation over the past few decades. But, as the research for my new book shows, one space where racism is routinely present on the road – specifically when it comes to the type of car a person may be driving.

Driver stereotypes

You might even be familiar with some of the simplistic stereotypes about various types of cars and drivers: from the White Van Man to the Subaru Boy Racer, narratives are created and circulated.

There are stereotypes about certain brands: Audi drivers as aggressive, some convertible models are either “womens’ cars” or said to be “hairdressers” cars – read that as sporty looking on a budget. And of course, the ubiquitous “Chelsea tractor” sobriquet is often used to describe any large four-wheel-drive vehicle in urban areas.

Over time and through repetition these stereotypes become highly meaningful and form shortcuts – underpinned with logic and experience, each reinforcing the other. Such ideas end up seeming normal, accepted and constitute conventional wisdom.

Racism on the road

In my sociology research, I’ve found that racial stereotypes are fairly common on the UK’s roads – particularly in multi-ethnic areas.

Over a period of several years, I spoke with people from various ethnic, gender, class and professional backgrounds. Through interview, observation and participation, the emerging data often painted car ownership as a complex but important indicator of status or success. But, at the same time, for many people, owning what appeared to be expensive cars also posed risks for the driver.

My research shows that narratives around particular types of cars in the hands of particular types of owners were abundant and held as common shorthand.

Modified cars parked in carpark.
Bradford Modified Club car meet, Bradford, May 2017. Author provided

I found, for example, that if you’re young and of South Asian heritage and you drive an expensive looking car in an inner city, then you run the risk of being stereotyped as a drug dealer. How else, after all, could someone who is not expected to have the life chances to succeed using legitimate endeavour, demonstrate such success?

Similarly, people with cars that happen to be equipped with loud in-car entertainment systems, may be seen as unruly, self-indulgent and possibly antisocial.

Changing lanes

In my new book Race, Taste, Class and Cars I look at the complexity of car acquisition, ownership and maintenance. Part of my book is dedicated to car modification – and looks at the experiences of owners who tweak their car’s performance, or aesthetics to improve its overall style, in turn adding a layer of creativity.

BMW and other vehicles parked in carpark.
Bradford Modified Club car meet, Bradford, September, 2019. Author provided

But I’ve found that instead of seeing car customisation and modification as a creative, artistic endeavour, those who invest emotionally and economically into the look, feel and sound of their cars are often made to feel they are problematic troublemakers – and doubly problematic if they are not white.

At the heart of my analysis is the fact that race and class-based prejudices are given licence to be enacted on the road with such frequency that they become rational, banal, accepted and – as things stand – unlikely to be challenged.

And this can have wide implications. Just look at the recent experience of Labour MP Dawn Butler who has accused the Metropolitan Police of racial profiling after the BMW in which she was travelling (driven by a black male drive) was pulled over in Hackney, east London:

Then there was also the recent case of team GB sprinter, Bianca Williams and her partner Ricardo dos Santos, the Portuguese 400m runner, who were stopped when they were driving through Maida Vale in west London. They were both dragged from their vehicle and handcuffed – Williams has since accused the police of racial profiling.

Indeed, a prestige car with tinted windows and black occupants in a largely white and affluent district may have been something of a flag – hence the stop.

There are many similar cases, some of which have lasting effects on those suspected by police officers as criminal, partly because of the false assumption that the car they drive seems only attainable through illicit means.

It is clear that what is needed is a shift in cultural attitudes as well as an acknowledgement of these now racially primed shortcuts for what they are. In turn, policing strategy especially within multi-ethnic areas needs modification to ensure practices aren’t just a result of stereotypical prejudice.

Yunis Alam is the author of:

Race, Taste, Class and Cars.

Bristol University Press provides funding as a content partner of The Conversation UK

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