Saturday, April 27, 2013

Is it harder for black people to get a taxi in the US? or About the Taxi Test

When you talk about race in the US, you're likely to hear someone say it's harder for black folks to catch a cab. Most of the country became very aware of that in 1994 when Michael Moore did the "taxi test” on TV Nation: Yaphet Kotto, a black actor, and Louie Bruno, a white felon, hailed taxis to see who would be picked up. Most cabbies passed Kotto to pick up Bruno.

But a much better test had a different result.

Kotto filed a complaint with the city of New York, and in 1999, Mayor Giuliani responded with an Operation Refusal sting to catch cabbies who weren't picking up people of color. The sting was modeled after Moore's: a white and a black or Hispanic person tried to flag cabs. If a cab passed the person of color to pick up the white person, the cabbie was booked for discrimination.

Somini Sengupta describes the first results in Despite Warning, Some Cabdrivers Are Snared:
During the first 12 hours of the program, called Operation Refusal, teams of undercover police officers and taxi inspectors, black and white, hailed 817 cabs throughout Manhattan. Of those, five passed up customers because of their race or gender, police and taxi commission officials said. Among those cited was a driver on the East Side of Manhattan who refused to pick up a white woman with two children; instead, the cabby picked up an undercover inspector, a white male, nearby.
Biju Mathew notes in Taxi!: Cabs and Capitalism in New York City that means less than 1% of more than 800 randomly-selected cabbies made race or gender choices that day.

But this doesn't mean only one percent of cabbies in 1999 were racist. The plans for that sting had been publicized, so drivers were more careful not to discriminate that day.

You might think better numbers are in Calvin Sims' 2007 article, An Arm in the Air for That Cab Ride Home:
The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission’s “Operation Refusal” program, in which undercover officers of different races randomly hail taxis, found in its most recent study a 96 percent compliance rate among cabbies. The commission says the compliance rate has grown consistently since the program was instituted in 1997, when it was 88 percent.
However, that four percent is probably too high. Dan Ackman's Giuliani's sorry crackdown on New York cabbies tells what was originally wrong with Giuliani's plan:
...his taxi commissioner began to seize cabs, suspend licenses on the spot without any hearing, and revoke the licenses of cabbies found guilty by taxi commission judges. Headlines hailed the mayor for taking on "racist cabbies."

...But even as Giuliani was announcing the plan, his aides were drafting memos questioning the legality of the penalty scheme. This time, there were no public hearings, and the board of the taxi commission was not even consulted. Five hundred drivers had their licenses suspended. Almost 100 had their licenses revoked. Their livelihoods disappeared in a flash.

It took three years from the crackdown for a federal judge to declare the mayor's suspensions of the cabbies' licenses without hearings unconstitutional...
Good Cabbies Are Being Punished by the TLC includes this example of a driver punished by Operation Refusal:
Howard Green is black. He lives on 132nd St. He’s been driving a yellow for about as long as Padberg. On Dec. 21, he was cruising up the middle of 1st Ave. in Manhattan. At 5th St. he was hailed by Officer Kenneth Padilla, working undercover. Surrounded as he was by traffic, there was no way that Green could have pulled over to make the pickup without causing an accident. He had his license grabbed, four days before Christmas. They set his hearing date in May.

This guy’s been driving for 25 years. It’s all he knows. So the upshot of Danny Glover’s showboating is that a hard-working black man who lives with his mother in Harlem gets thrown out of work four days before Christmas.
Dan Ackman's The African, The Journalist, And the TLC tells of another punished driver, Ebenezer Asamoah, "a native of Ghana, who had been driving a cab in New York for nine years". Were cabbies like Green and Asamoah making racist decisions?

All studies of Operation Refusal agree that most refusals aren't about race. Ackman says:
...the evidence showed that just 15 percent of the alleged refusals to pick up passengers involved race. The vast majority were based on destination. The mayor, of course, knew better from the start, or should have known better. The taxi commission's own studies indicated that most refusals of service were based on destination, not race.
So why did Moore's "taxi test" tell a misleading story?

Kotto is a great actor, but if you watch the episode critically, you'll see that his taxi technique sucks. If you want a cab, don't stand near the intersection where it's hard for a cab to pull over, don't stay close to the sidewalk where you're hard to see, and don't wave timidly.  Bruno's style is much better: Find a spot a little ways back from the intersection, step out into the street as far you dare, and wave boldly.