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How Car Culture Fuels Racial Inequality

(Xia Gordon)

This story was produced in partnership with Vox as part of the discrimination issue of The Highlight.

When a Nevada police officer pulled over Leisa Moseley-Sayles in 2010, she was new to Las Vegas. She was getting a divorce and going through a custody battle, raising four young children, and working on a political campaign. Money was tight. So when the officer issued a ticket for $299 because her California license plate had expired, it couldn’t have come at a worse time: Moseley-Sayles didn’t have the money to pay. She signed up for a payment plan, not anticipating how that traffic ticket would haunt her for the next several years of her life. 

For the first few months, she made her payments on time. Then, one month, she was short on cash. She wasn’t sure what missing a payment would mean, but when Moseley-Sayles called the court to ask if she could resume payments the next month, she learned that because she’d missed one, there was now a warrant out for her arrest. In order to get out of warrant status, she’d have to pay the warrant fees, which in Nevada can be $150 or more. She didn’t have the money to pay, so Moseley-Sayles was stuck, unable to afford the fine necessary to get back on the original payment plan.

The late fees accumulated and then multiplied. In 2011, she was pulled over again and informed that because she hadn’t paid her fines, her license had been suspended. She was issued another ticket. She tried to stay on top of payments, but in 2014, the worst happened: She was dropping her kids off at school and an officer pulled her over and informed her that she had an outstanding warrant for unpaid fees and was under arrest. Moseley-Sayles had to call a friend to pick up her kids while she waited to be released from jail later that night.

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Her story isn’t unique. As of 2021, about 11 million Americans had their driver’s licenses suspended due to nonpayment of fines and fees. It took Moseley-Sayles nearly a decade — by which time she’d paid off her initial ticket plus an additional $5,000 in warrant fees and other fines — to get her license reinstated. In the interim, she faced a conundrum that millions who have suspended licenses must contend with each year: Taking away a license doesn’t take away a person’s need to drive. Moseley-Sayles had to keep using her car and hope that she wasn’t pulled over and arrested for it.

“I cannot even tell you my emotional trauma. I always got nervous if I saw an officer, or if I passed one by and wasn’t sure if they’d get behind me,” she says. “I’m African American.” The knowledge that, as a Black driver, she was more likely to be pulled over contributed to her sense of unease. What was particularly nerve-wracking for her was her sense that it didn’t matter how carefully she drove: Her trouble with the law began not because she’d driven dangerously, but because of expired license plates.

“I’m a safe driver,” she says. “I’ve never in my life had a speeding ticket.” 

In Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights, historian and professor Gretchen Sorin writes about the ways cars opened new possibilities for freedom of movement to Black Americans, offering refuge from the segregation that defined mass transit in the Jim Crow South. 

“This freedom meant something different — and often, simply more — to Blacks than to whites,” Sorin writes. Those new freedoms brought new perils, though. Black drivers “encountered racist law-enforcement officers and gas-station attendants, bigoted auto-repairmen, threatening road signs,” and sundown towns: communities where Black people were expected to vacate by nightfall, under threat of violence. “Black drivers took many precautions to protect themselves and their families from these dangers,” Sorin explains.

While much has changed since the Civil Rights Movement fought for better protections for Black Americans, car-based transportation — now the dominant mode of American travel — continues to drive racial discrimination and inequality today. Majority-Black neighborhoods are still dealing with the consequences of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which plowed interstates through predominantly African American neighborhoods, displacing more than a million people and cutting off those who remained from the rest of their communities, resulting in their disinvestment and economic decline. 

Black drivers also face financial burdens that white drivers don’t. In 2019, Erik Mayer, an assistant professor of finance at Southern Methodist University, and two of his colleagues looked into racial discrimination in auto lending. They found ample evidence that Black and Hispanic people are discriminated against when buying cars.

Even accounting for income and credit scores, Mayer and his colleagues found, minority applicants were 1.5 percentage points less likely to receive a loan than their white counterparts, and 80,000 minority applicants were denied loans each year. Those who got loans were charged interest rates that were 0.7% APR higher than white buyers. “This costs the average minority borrower the equivalent of about $400 upfront. In aggregate, interest rate discrimination costs minority borrowers in the U.S. about $1.7 billion per year,” Mayer says. “Another way to think about our findings is that minorities are treated as if their credit score is roughly 30 points lower than it actually is. But then when we look at default rates on auto loans, we do not find any evidence that this is justified in economic terms.”

Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to live in low-income communities with more dangerous roads and infrastructure, too. The consequences are deadly: Black pedestrians are more than two times more likely to be killed while walking than white pedestrians. While cycling, their fatality rate is 4.5 times that of white cyclists. Overall, Black people — including those behind the wheel — are about 25% more likely to be killed in a car crash than white people. Those inequalities were exacerbated during the pandemic.

Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over by police than white drivers, and once pulled over, they are more likely to be ticketed, searched, and arrested. High-profile killings of unarmed Black drivers like Tyre Nichols, Philando Castile, and Walter Scott periodically draw attention to the fact that police traffic stops can be deadly, a mode of harassment, and an easy way to search a vehicle. But, perhaps more often, they can result in tickets that escalate if drivers are unable to pay, resulting in mounting debt, suspension of licenses, and even jail time. 

Part of what makes auto-based discrimination so insidious is how difficult it is to avoid. “Cars are a basic necessity to life in virtually every place in the United States,” says Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national organization dedicated to ending policies that place undue financial and legal burdens on low-income people. “To function almost everywhere in this country, you must have a car,” she says, “but it can also make you incredibly vulnerable.”

In 2018, NYU professors Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross began the early stages of a research project with students in the school’s Prison Education Program Research Lab. The students, who were formerly incarcerated, trained as peer researchers and interviewed others who’d been in the prison system about their debts and financial burdens. As the researchers conducted their first sets of interviews, one theme kept coming up again and again. “Even though we hadn’t talked about cars or named them as a source of debt, they started appearing,” Livingston says. “We started to realize that many of the people in our world had been arrested while driving.”

Livingston, Ross, and the researchers saw how central cars were in the arrests of the people they interviewed. In early 2023, they published the results of their study in Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality. The book explores how cars can be both an instrument of freedom and entrapment, exposing low-income and Black and brown Americans to discriminatory policing and predatory lending.

One of the most striking aspects of the interviews was the extent to which cars loomed large in many of the incarcerated subjects’ memories of life on the outside: They recalled with fondness the vehicles they used to drive, or talked about what cars they planned to buy when they got out. “We did not want to deny the positive features of automobility, and what that has meant to people and indeed to many of our interviewees, who dreamed about getting back on the road,” Ross says.

Read more: Discrimination isn’t just infuriating. It steals Black people’s time.

Livingston agreed. “The carceral system works by denying freedom of mobility to people — that’s at the very core of it. So of course, people held in a cage dream of motion, mobility, and the ability to move at will,” she says. “They dream of privacy, something that is profoundly denied to them.”

After getting out of prison, getting a car was often a top priority for those reentering society, especially if they were reentering in a place where one was required to drive to work or meetings with probation officers. But several of the formerly incarcerated people interviewed, having limited credit because of their years behind bars, found it difficult to access car loans at reasonable interest rates — making them susceptible to predatory lenders who would charge exorbitant interest rates on vehicles they couldn’t afford. 

“A lot of people we were interviewing were driving pretty fancy cars. We were stroking our chins, going: How did you afford that? It turned out that some of them were walking into dealerships and being told they couldn’t get financing for the Hondas they wanted, but could for a top-of-the-line Mercedes,” Ross says. “Why would a lender and dealer do that? Because they know they’re going to be able to repossess the car quickly.” 

It wasn’t the only way formerly incarcerated people were targeted. For those who were Black, the heightened risk of being pulled over meant they were vulnerable to being reincarcerated for a minor traffic violation if an officer found out they had a prior felony conviction and were on parole. “Coming out of prison, when you get behind the wheel of a car, it puts you in the spotlight,” Ross says. While working with their formerly incarcerated peer researchers on the project, Ross noted, three of them were pulled over for minor traffic violations and ended up being incarcerated again.

Moseley-Sayles soon learned that her difficulty climbing out of the debt caused by her initial traffic ticket was a common experience in her community. Through her work with the Clark County Black Caucus, she heard from several people who were experiencing similar difficulties navigating the system. She and others in the Black Caucus began raising awareness about the issue and advocating for changes to be made to the law. In 2011, Moseley-Sayles and other activists in the state worked on a campaign to get rid of automatic warrants for failure to pay traffic fines, but the bill failed. 

Then, in 2014, a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. In the days following his killing, protesters took to the streets across the United States to protest police violence against Black civilians. 

In the wake of that unrest, the Justice Department announced a report into the policing practices of law enforcement officers in Ferguson. The report, released in 2015, confirmed what residents of overpoliced communities already knew to be true: that the Ferguson police were using pretextual police stops that violated citizens’ constitutional rights, and were issuing traffic tickets and fines at the direction of city government as a means of generating revenue for the city’s budget. The practice, the DOJ found, was discriminatory against Ferguson’s predominantly Black residents, and it was undermining public safety and trust. 

The Ferguson report brought new attention to the issue of predatory fines and fees, which activists seized on in order to help spark reform. Because each community has its own rules for how fines and fees are administered, getting a comprehensive picture of the problem was difficult. The Fines and Fees Justice Center, which was founded in 2018, picked up the fight and began compiling research and data from disparate municipalities across the country, trying to get a sense of the scale of the problem. 

The DOJ’s findings in Ferguson pointed to a common pattern. “Tens of millions of tickets are issued every year in the United States, and they’re extracting wealth — particularly among communities that are heavily policed and therefore heavily stopped,” Weiss says. “They are low-income communities and especially communities of color.”  

The racial disparities are evident in who gets charged for driving with a suspended license: According to an analysis by the New York City Council data team, driving with a suspended license is the fourth most common charge in the city. While 76% of drivers in the city are white, 80% of those arrested for driving with a suspended license are Black or Latino. 

The irony, Weiss points out, is that the rules end up punishing people not based on public safety — because wealthier people who receive speeding tickets can often just pay their fines and get back on the road — but rather on whether the person can pay. “What we end up doing is taking our public safety resources, our police, and courts, and using them as armed debt collectors, rather than protecting public safety,” she says. “We punish people more severely for being poor than for being dangerous to other people.”

As Moseley-Sayles discovered in conversations with others who were in debt, part of the problem is that many people who were caught up in the system didn’t want to speak publicly about it. “There is some shame around it. Anyone who gets a traffic ticket — people want to pay,” she says. “No one wants to be known for being poor.”

In 2016, the DOJ issued a letter to presiding court judges and administrators across the country, warning them that issuing tickets that citizens couldn’t afford to pay could be a violation of their constitutional rights.

“Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape,” Vanita Gupta, then-head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, and Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice, wrote. “Furthermore, in addition to being unlawful, to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents.” 

The letter wasn’t binding, but indicated that courts imposing harsh fines and fees might find themselves open to legal challenges and under scrutiny from the Department of Justice. The DOJ followed up on the letter in April 2023, further signifying its commitment to ending the practice. “The unfettered imposition of fines and fees across the country has entrapped poor people, too many of whom are people of color, in a cycle of escalating debt, unnecessary incarceration, and debilitating entanglement in our justice system,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s civil rights division wrote in the updated guidance

At the same time, a coalition of organizations got to work lobbying state lawmakers around the country about the policies and practices in their states. One campaign, called Free to Drive, is aimed at ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions. Since 2017, the organization says, 24 states and the District of Columbia have ended the practice or reformed the way they do it. In New Mexico, where lawmakers voted this year to reinstate the licenses of people who couldn’t afford to pay or didn’t appear in court for the hearing, 300,000 people — 1 in 5 adults in the state — will get back their licenses next year.

In 2021, with the help of advocates including Moseley-Sayles, who became the Nevada state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, Nevada legislators passed a law banning courts from suspending someone’s driver’s license because of an inability to pay. They also decriminalized driving with a broken tail light and other minor traffic violations that are often a pretext for traffic stops and unfairly burden low-income people and people of color. 

Moseley-Sayles says that while she’s still hoping to work on legislation to make infractions like broken tail lights a secondary offense, she’s glad that no one else will experience what she did. “Anyone with a suspended license or expired vehicle registration or a broken tail light, they’re not a criminal anymore,” she says. “That ticket won’t turn into a warrant. I’m very happy about that.” 

There are several reforms, experts say, that would reduce the severity of discrimination against Black drivers. Decriminalizing minor traffic violations in the remaining 12 states that still do it is one of them, as is investing in road design changes that will make streets safer for everyone, says Beth Colgan, a professor of law at UCLA. “If we care about pedestrian and traffic safety, then let’s do the necessary infrastructure improvements,” Colgan says. 

Another idea, which has gained traction as violent traffic stops have become a part of public consciousness, is removing police from traffic enforcement and putting it in the hands of municipal transportation agencies. “We see no reason that armed police should be doing traffic duty,” Livingston at NYU says. “The road needs to be regulated, but not at the barrel of a gun.” The idea has been circulating among policymakers and advocates in places like Oakland, California, and Washington, D.C.

Ross also points to fine systems that work on a sliding scale, which are common in Scandinavian countries. Maybe most important, Weiss says, is making sure local courts abide by the guidance issued by the DOJ and root out the discrimination that disproportionately falls on low-income and Black and brown drivers.

Weiss feels hopeful that, despite the scale of the issue, the federal government and local legislators are starting to take notice and correct their policies. “On the one hand, practices everywhere are terrible,” she says. “On the other hand, there’s recognition in many places that using the justice system as a piggy bank is a terrible idea that’s harmful to communities. There’s a lot to undo. But it’s actually doable.”