Uber Fights Cab Discrimination, by Gianno Caldwell

caldwell_smThere was a time when actor Danny Glover made national news because, as a black man, he said he couldn’t get a cab to stop for him.

That was before the Uber ridesharing service that is now challenging the cab industry — and winning when it comes to service.

I understood Glover’s situation. As a black man going to school and working in downtown Chicago while living in the South Side, I relied on public transportation because it was nearly impossible to get a cab to go into my predominantly black neighborhood.

There was one time when I left school after a late study session. Dressed in a suit and with schoolbooks in hand, I successfully hailed a cab and told the driver I’d guide him to my home.  After we left the downtown area, the driver began to panic.

“Where are you taking me, sir?” he asked angrily. Learning the address, he exclaimed: “Absolutely not. I will not be taking you further on the South Side. Get out of my cab now!” Even though it was illegal to refuse rides, he didn’t care.  I had to walk a mile to reach public transit and finally get home.

My story was not uncommon and was widespread, especially for those living in black and brown neighborhoods.

The advent of the Uber ridesharing service — a company similar to a cab service but operating outside of cab regulations that is now valued at over $41 billion — is changing the attitude of the cab industry. The desire to provide quality service seems to have helped trump preconceived racial notions that wronged me, Glover and countless others in the past.

I first learned of Uber after moving to Washington, D.C. in 2012. Out late with friends and concerned about getting home, a friend pulled out his phone and hired an Uber driver. Literally three minutes later, a text announcing our ride was outside.  I couldn’t believe it. There was no way I could have gotten a standard cab that quickly, if at all.

I asked my friend about how Uber worked, since we had never even left our seats. The Uber smartphone app utilizes GPS tracking to direct a driver to your location. You receive a picture of your driver, his phone number and the kind of vehicle he is driving. It also stores credit card information, alleviating the need for cash or a driver’s fear of people skipping out on fares. And there’s no tipping, avoiding those issues with a driver.

Furthermore, you can rate your driver. If your driver gives you a hard time, like that Chicago cabbie did to me in 2006, they can receive a bad rating. If they are a chronic menace, they can lose customers and possibly their job with Uber.

From an Uber blog post, the company says about its service: “It 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.  I agree.

I’m not alone. LaToya Peterson, who originally wrote on the Racialicious web site in 2012 that Uber “removes the racism factor when you need a ride,” told the Medium web site in 2014: “The Uber experience is just so much easier for African-Americans. There’s no fighting or conversation. When I need a car, it comes.”

Recently, I was back in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods. Gang activity and drug deals are just the tip of the iceberg there. Experimenting with my Uber app, I expected there would be no one available in that area.  To my surprise, there were three Uber vehicles nearby. I was beyond shocked because there’s no way a cab would ever consider coming to that part of town.

As a lobbyist, I have seen the fights cab companies have been having with Uber in state capitals across the nation. The truth is, if cab companies had been doing an effective job serving everyone, and not created such a checkered reputation, Uber would not have the impact it has had.

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Project 21 member Gianno Caldwell is the founder and principal of Caldwell Strategic Consulting. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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