As a black woman motorist alone, Sandra Bland’s apprehension and subsequent death underscores the race and gender regime of mobility in the U.S. For many white people, having the freedom to get behind the wheel of a car is a birthright as critical to American national identity as the delusion that the U.S. is the greatest country on the planet. Historically, cars have been associated with masculine freedom, rugged individualism and Manifest Destiny, especially vis-à-vis highway development and the destruction of poor urban communities.
Unlimited access to the open road was a white privilege symbolized by the U.S.’ massive investment in suburbia and interstate highways in the 1950s. During the Jim Crow era, African Americans were supposed to yield to white drivers on the road. Failure to do so could mean a traffic ticket, a beating or death. As Stetson Kennedy stresses in the book Jim Crow Guide to the USA, for Southern black drivers, “When on wheels you were to do as on foot.” Black drivers are routinely stopped and searched at greater rates than are whites. From the colonists to Kerouac, free, unlimited, boundary-free travel has always been a hallmark of white Americana.
Getting behind the wheel, Bland had three strikes against her. She was black, female and fearless, a combination that is antithetical to all the vaunted white-centered narratives of driving and freedom in the U.S. She was perceived as criminal and unruly, a loud black “bitch” not worthy of the feminine privileges and niceties conferred to respectable white women. Rightly challenging the actions of the officer who stopped her, she was an uppity harridan who clearly did not know her place. Texas D.A. Elton Mathis’ comments that Bland was not a “model” person highlight the dominant perception of black women. It is a perception that is always laced with sexual disruption and moral failing. Black women’s bodies are always constructed as bodies out of place; uneasily positioned between the binary of masculine and feminine.
This is especially pronounced in public discourse on policing and criminalization in which black women’s experiences are still devalued by the mainstream. In its newreport, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” the African American Policy Forum notes that:
“Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media, and advocates to exclude them. For example, although racial profiling data are rarely, if ever, disaggregated by gender and race, when race and gender are considered together, researchers find that ‘for both men and women there is an identical pattern of stops by race/ ethnicity.'”