Reporter's Notebook

Taxi Bigotry Isn't Black and White
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Readers discuss the nuanced discrimination that often plays out in taxis, as well as ride-share services like Uber and Lyft. The discussion was sparked by our piece from Doug Glanville about the discrimination he faced at LAX, a piece that eventually persuaded the city council to ban taxi discrimination at that airport.

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Taxi Bigotry Isn't Black and White, Cont'd

This is a pretty great coda to our reader thread and the influential piece from Doug Glanville that inspired it. From the L.A. Times:

A city Council committee moved Tuesday to tighten penalties for taxi drivers who face complaints of discrimination for refusing to pick up an airport passenger on the basis of race. The action was spurred by a recent undercover operation by two black police officers, who found that taxi drivers rejected 20% of their requests for rides at LAX. The committee that oversees trade and tourism suggested banning cab drivers from working the airport for a year if an investigation finds them guilty of racial discrimination against a potential passenger. [...] The City Council will vote on the suggestions next week.

Lawmakers said the policy change was inspired by ESPN analyst Doug Glanville, who wrote an essay last fall for the Atlantic magazine's website, saying a taxi driver refused to give him a ride because he is black.

Update: The law was passed.

A reader adds a helpful link to our evolving thread on prejudice within the taxi and ride-share industries:

Re the Uber “solution”: I haven’t seen anyone point out that Uber drivers apparently rate customers and have access to customers’ habits (e.g., what neighborhoods they frequently ask to get dropped off in), opening the door to discrimination that is never made obvious to the customer as it was to Mr. Glanville and countless others. Law professor Nancy Leong wrote about this and discussed it on WNYC/NPR’s On the Media last year.

On the other hand, this summer Uber invoked the racist reputation of taxi drivers to fight the NYC government’s attempt to clamp down on the company:

A reader adds to the growing thread:

For obvious reasons to follow, I wish to remain anonymous. However, when I was a junky living and using in Baltimore as a white male software developer, I could always get cabs to the very neighborhoods that a cabbie would not bring a black customer—even though they knew why I was going where I was going and at hours that were definitely not work hours. And yes, most of the drivers were of East African origin. They also did not care what I was doing. Only that I was white and my money was green.

Later, having been fired from multiple software engineering positions for being a heroin addict, I became a hack—a member of the underground unregulated Baltimore taxi economy.

Many readers over the weekend began to debate how race plays a role in cab drivers favoring certain passengers over others. The latest reader to write in:

I’m white. Some years ago, after dinner in Midtown, a black acquaintance with a train to catch at Penn Station asked me to hail him a cab, explaining that taxis won’t stop for him because they don’t want to go all the way up to Harlem or out to Brooklyn or the Bronx. They want to go where they have a good chance of picking up another fare in short order. They don’t want to drive empty back to Midtown. It was an economic decision based on experience-informed probabilities.

Another reader makes a similar point but goes into much greater depth—and controversy:

In his essay, Doug Glanville says this:

I also have come to understand that drivers have major concerns about safety or about the economics of getting return rides after dropping someone off. But this is where bias is circular—you have to make a lot of assumptions to draw these sorts of conclusions without engaging with the passenger on any level.

and this:

But I knew what was going on: The driver had concluded I was a threat, either because I was dangerous myself or because I would direct him to a bad neighborhood (or give him a low tip).

He’s hand-waving these motivations away, basically indicating that they hold no weight and no justification. And it’s certainly true that no justification would make racism good, that nothing would make these events fair to a black person simply trying to get a ride home. But in coming to the conclusion that these taxi drivers simply “learned” their racism on arriving here and assuming they pull their biases out of thin air, Glanville has avoided the hard, real conversation for the easy, comfortable and ultimately useless one.

About money: Taxi drivers don’t make a lot of it.

Doug Glanville, the former pro baseball player, pens a personal essay for us on the persistent problem of cab drivers refusing service because of race. This passage is notably nuanced:

It’s worth noting that in my experience, the drivers who most blatantly refused me service have never been white. According to a 2004 The New York Times report, 84 percent of New York City cab drivers are immigrants (the vast majority are “of color”), just like my father was in the mid-1950s. English was not the first language of the driver who refused me at LAX. This fact complicated the story for me. On the one hand, it was sobering to see how newcomers to the United States could not only adopt longstanding racial and institutional biases, but entrench them even further. On the other hand, I knew that I was in a position of power, and that I was in danger of making assumptions myself.

But many readers furrowed their brows:

I was with Glanville until he mentioned “how newcomers to the United States could not only adopt longstanding racial and institutional biases, but entrench them even further.”