Fresh out of college, like so many bright-eyed young folks with big ideas about changing the world, I came to Washington. And like so many of us in the early ‘90s who arrived in the nation’s capital hoping to jump into politics, my first paying gig was actually a job waiting tables in an upscale Washington Harbor eatery where, fortunately, you could (and still can) make pretty good money.
My shifts, though, routinely ended after midnight—well after normal city bus service hours at the time—and I’d often leave work with a pocket full of cash. I had to get from Georgetown, where Metro rail service is nonexistent, back home to my basement rental in South East Washington. If I could have hailed a cab, that would have solved my problem.
But generally speaking, I couldn’t.
To be clear, plenty of cabs were still running at that hour, and for my white colleagues, catching one usually wasn’t an issue. But for me, a 20-something, skinny black kid with a high-top fade (remember, we’re talking early ‘90s here) it wasn’t a trivial matter.
Taxis at the harbor would, time and again, blatantly swerve around me to pick up white patrons, or my white colleagues. I came face to face with overt discrimination in a way that, even as a child of the South, I frankly had never experienced in such a direct way.
For me, and too many Americans, particularly minorities in urban areas, it’s one of any number of situations where we routinely, almost mundanely, face inequity and discrimination. Hailing cabs isn’t a matter of life and death, but it can negatively impact our overall quality of life, both economically and emotionally.
So what’s changed for me? I’m not a waiter anymore—I’m a pollster.
And now, to go along with these anecdotes, which so many African Americans regularly discuss amongst ourselves—and which are sometimes dismissed in the mainstream as isolated incidents—there’s hard data. You know how black people always say they can’t get a cab? Well, my firm just conducted a study in one of the largest major urban centers for African Americans in the country, Chicago, and we’ve quantified the discriminatory differences in our report, “Hailing While Black.” Some of our findings didn’t surprise me. How could they have? But to my surprise, unlike so many other racial issues, on this issue we found very little bifurcation between the white and black community, with even a plurality of white Chicagoans acknowledging that African Americans are discriminated against in cab service.
Sixty-six percent, or just about two-thirds of African Americans in Chicago agree that the city’s taxi drivers deliberately discriminate against them. A similar majority, 62 percent, of African Americans say low-income and minority neighborhoods are most likely to experience poor service, including being refused service. A 48 percent plurality of African Americans say it’s likely that if they tried hailing a cab, the taxi would ignore them and continue driving. By contrast, only 23 percent of whites say it’s likely that they would be ignored by a cab. And 41 percent of African Americans in Chicago report that they have often experienced a taxi service refusal to send a cab to their community.
We’ve seen reports in the past—like this 2009 ABC News analysis—that illustrate the issue; and what my firm, Brilliant Corners, has tried to do, is apply our methodology to quantify how the pervasiveness of the “Hailing While Black” obstacle is viewed.
One of our findings was that while typically, claims of discrimination result in significant disparities in perceptions between whites and minorities, on the cab-hailing issue, both groups tended to hold similar views. A majority of whites, 55 percent, also said poor and minority communities are most likely to be poorly served. And 47 percent, or nearly half of white respondents, agreed Chicago taxi drivers deliberately discriminate against black customers.
Why don’t the data reflect this more typical disparity? Perhaps it’s a matter of this type of scenario—an African American standing on the sidewalk hailing a cab—being more visible to the typical observer. No doubt the spectacle of witnessing taxis swerve around a black patron in favor of white patrons is too unmistakable to be ignored. Or maybe too many white city-dwellers have had to assist their African American friends and colleagues by serving as a decoy taxi patron, hailing down a cab while their African American counterparts wait in the background until a driver pulls over to the curb. In any event, the fact that the traditional split of perspective hasn’t occurred means many more citizens perceive the inequities, which means a larger pool of potential supporters for policies that address the problem.
And this isn’t just academic. As the political debate over this element of the sharing economy rages—with sides being drawn between the legacy taxicab industry and new-school providers like Uber—all sides would be wise to recognize the racial component. Price and convenience clearly aren’t the only issues at play.
Discrimination on the streets, and specifically in black communities, is part of daily life for far too many African Americans. It immediately impacted how I had to navigate my world. It came with a financial cost when I had limited resources. It was demeaning and embarrassing, and yet, to this day, I can’t fully explain why I was the one who was embarrassed by drivers discriminating against me. It’s an odd thing how the targets of discrimination so often feel ashamed by the ill-treatment of others.
While we've yet to produce our next survey, it's fair to say--even based on personal experience--that Chicago isn't an outlier. Discrimination persists, and the transportation sector is no exception.