Hailing a New York City cab while black may get a little easier in the coming days, if new technologies now being released have the expected impact.
Racial discrimination by taxi drivers is a phenomenon that has long plagued New York City cab seekers of color, many longtime residents and visitors say.
Even famous actor Danny Glover has had what many people of color describe as a common experience. The movie star caused a stir more than a decade ago when he filed a complaint with the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), claiming in part that he had been denied rides by several of the city’s yellow cab drivers because of his race.
“I was so angry,” he said in a press conference to discuss the incident. “The fact that my daughter’s here to go to school, it really upsets me that if she’s standing on the corner waiting to get a cab, she can’t get a cab. It happens to her, it happens to countless people every single day.”
All of that could change, however, with the advent of new mobile apps that seek to streamline the process of hailing a cab, while rendering drivers essentially colorblind regarding the race of potential passengers.
Racial discrimination by cab drivers persists
Mr. Glover had his alleged run-ins in 1999. Fourteen years later, some claim not much has changed.
“I recruit a white person or innocent-looking female to wave me a cab every time I visit,” says William Hayes, a 27-year-old, African-American school principal from Cleveland. “I’ve had taxi drivers ride by and pretend to look down as they approach. I’ve also had them pull up with the door locked and ask where I was headed. If I said Brooklyn then they would all of a sudden be on their way to pick up someone else a couple blocks up.”
Another black visitor to the city, 25-year-old Erin Jackson, says she was shocked at what she perceived as discrimination when visiting old classmates in New York City from Atlanta.
“We were downtown one night and one of the girls I was with told the taxi guy we were going to Harlem. He drove off with the door open,” she says. “I was appalled, but they weren’t surprised at all. After that we got into the cabs first, then told them where we were going.”
There were 4,237 complaints of service refusal made to the TLC last year, according to figures from the agency. When it comes to getting to the bottom of possible discrimination by taxi drivers, the numbers only tell part of the story.
Is it race, or destination discrimination?
TLC representative Allan Fromberg says there is no easy way of isolating how many complaints are due to racial bias. He believes refusals based on trip destination happens far more frequently. “This, of course, is simply due to the fact that drivers prefer to stay in the central business district of Manhattan where the second someone gets out of their car, someone else gets in,” says Fromberg.
While Fromberg believes the economic advantages to drivers of staying in Manhattan play a larger role in why passengers are refused taxis, the experiences of Hayes and Jackson suggest race is also a factor.
In New York City, where people live is often highly-correlated to their race.
A cursory look at the most recent census reveals that the majority of the city’s black and Latino populations live in Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens – all outside the central business district of Manhattan where taxis prefer to operate. Cab drivers’ reported refusal to pick up people of color might likely be a de facto byproduct of the racial segregation of the city’s neighborhoods. Race is a fair indicator of where someone might be going.
Yet, where cab drivers prefer to operate should be inconsequential. It is illegal for drivers of New York City’s TLC-regulated yellow cabs to turn down passengers wishing to travel within city limits and certain surrounding areas.