Ubering While Black

Jenna Wortham
Oct 23, 2014 · 5 min read

By Jenna Wortham

The comedian Hannibal Buress has a bit in his act about trying to hail a cab in New York as a black man. He walks up to the taxi and tries to open the door, but rather than pick him up, the driver hits the gas and speeds away, with Buress running alongside the cab.

“I don’t know what I wanted from that,” he cracks. “Like he was going to stop the cab and go, ‘Wow, you’re fast—get in, get in! Damn, you’re so fast I’m not even racist anymore.’”

It’s funny, but also grim, because it depicts an uncomfortably tragic truth: that for a person of color, it can be infuriatingly difficult to hail a taxi.

I’ve endured humiliating experiences trying to get a cab in the various cities I’ve visited and lived in. Available taxis—as indicated by their roof lights—locked their doors with embarrassingly loud clicks as I approached. Or they’ve just ignored my hail altogether. It’s largely illegal for cab drivers to refuse a fare, but that rarely deters them, because who’s going to take the time to file a report? And once, horrifyingly, while I was in San Francisco, a taxi driver demanded I exit his car. Fed up, I stubbornly refused, so he hopped out of his seat, walked around to my side, and yanked me out.

After that last incident, which happened a few years ago, I avoided cabs altogether. I stuck to riding public transportation, and rented cars when I traveled.

In 2011, I covered Uber’s debut in New York. The service, then a scrappy start-up, promised to let people request rides from private cars and taxis with a smartphone application. It initially seemed like a hard sell in a city resplendent with transit options, but I quickly found myself using it more frequently, especially when I traveled back to San Francisco.

Latoya Peterson, the founder of a site called Racialicious, first blogged about her experiences with Uber in 2012, wondering whether or not the technology could be a panacea for the discrimination she experienced trying to hail cabs.

“The premium car service removes the racism factor when you need a ride,” she wrote. Peterson, who lives in D.C., said that since her original post, she has taken “hundreds of rides” with Uber. “The Uber experience is just so much easier for African-Americans,” she told me recently. “There’s no fighting or conversation. When I need a car, it comes. It takes me to my destination. It’s amazing that I have to pay a premium for that experience, but it’s worth it.”

Even though requesting a car through Uber can cost more than a regular taxi, Peterson and I are each usually willing to pay extra to avoid potential humiliation.

Uber declined to comment for this article, but spokespeople pointed to a company blog post from August that says Uber has been a boon to underserved areas in certain cities, including New York, Chicago, and Boston. The company says its system is designed to avoid discrimination. Uber requires that users create a profile on the service, but the company says drivers see only their first names and pickup location, which prevents them from racially profiling and rejecting riders. And Uber lets passengers rate their drivers—and vice versa—and if either party get repeated low ratings, they may eventually be booted from the system.

It’s also not entirely clear that Uber’s system is completely foolproof. Because drivers can reject riders for any reason, you have no way of knowing whether it’s because of your rating, your name (from which race can often be inferred), or the neighborhood you’re in.

Michael Luca, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told me that the one clear downside to marketplaces that rely on reputation and build social features like personal information into business transactions is that they can have unintended side effects. “The social nature of the sharing economy is more vulnerable than a traditional economy,” he said.

In January, Luca co-published a paper on digital discrimination that surveyed thousands of listings on Airbnb. The study compared black and non-black hosts who had similar apartments, photos, and ratings, and found that the non-black hosts tended to earn 12 percent more than their black peers, suggesting that those black Airbnb hosts were susceptible to some form of social selection and internal biases.

“We have made a lot of decisions in our country about discrimination policies for businesses, employers, and landlords,” he said. But since most of these social commerce systems are private companies, they operate beyond that framework, making it easier to bypass those regulations.

According to Luca, as social commerce becomes more prevalent, those risks could grow. Other burgeoning services, like Lyft, do allow their drivers to see the photos of potential riders. Erin Simpson, a spokeswoman for the company, said that employees can monitor how often drivers decline rides, and single out any individuals who are not regularly accepting requests. In addition, all drivers agree to an anti-discrimination policy. These newfound services, Luca says, don’t yet pay a price if someone discriminates—both are considered to be worth billions of dollars, and are hailed as the future of commerce and as crucial elements of global infrastructure—so there’s little pushback for them to consider the ethics of their policies.

Peterson and I both agree that our reliance on Uber, which has questionable business practices and policies, is troubling. The company grossly inflates its rates during bad weather, had unseemly clashes with local regulators and lawmakers, and has been accused of everything from poor consumer safety to dirty marketing tactics. Buzzfeed’s Johana Bhuiyan has been doing a tremendous job covering the ins and outs of the company, which has grown so quickly into an international enterprise that it’s not yet clear how its dominance will affect local economics or transportation infrastructure.

But we also agree that the quality of our lives improved tremendously once we found a workaround to dealing with rude and racist cab drivers. There’s an “emotional cost” to those kinds of interactions, she said, and “Uber offers the path of least resistance.”

Photo-collage sources, from left: Photka(Shutterstock); Photka(Shutterstock); Val Lawless(Shutterstock); Dean Drobot(Shutterstock).

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