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Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 1999 /6 Kislev, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Those racist cabbies --
ACTOR DANNY GLOVER couldn't get a cab in New York City. Three empty taxis sped past him, Glover recounted, and others were rude. When a cab finally did pick up Glover, his college-age daughter and her roommate, the driver (who must not have recognized the star of "Lethal Weapon") declined to let the actor sit in the front seat, even though Glover explained that he had a bad hip.

The difficulty black men experience hailing cabs has become a symbol of continuing American racism, though there is a perfectly obvious alternative explanation. Reporting the story in its "Week in Review" section, the New York Times acknowledged a wrinkle -- the cabbie who was rude to Glover was non-white also, an immigrant from the subcontinent. Still, this didn't dent the Times' certitude about racism. "The actor's experience," the Times concluded, "may illustrate not just continuing American racism, but one way its character is subtly changing with demographics."

Translation: even other "people of color" are capable of racist stereotyping. Immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and even Africa are arriving with prejudiced ideas about blacks. The Times attributed these attitudes among new immigrants to the prevalence of American entertainment around the world.

So entrenched is the idea that cabbies who pass by black men are practicing racism that New York's Taxi and Limousine commission has sent undercover police officers out to keep the cabbies honest.

Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, authors of the most definitive study of American race relations extant, "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible," had an interesting experience in a New York taxi recently.

Their native-born black driver said, "You won't believe what just happened to me!" Two very scruffy and unkempt black men hailed his cab. He stopped and asked where they wanted to go. "Bed-Stuy" they replied (one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York).

The cabbie was leery, but he was also aware that undercover cops were out looking for cabbies who engaged in illegal racial profiling. So he told them to get in, secretly planning to use one of his escape strategies (pretending that the cab suffered a breakdown). After only a couple of blocks, however, the two men in the back seat identified themselves as undercover cops, congratulated the cabbie on passing the test and got out. But before they walked away, one of the cops asked the driver to lower his window, brought his face very close and asked, "What are you, crazy?"

Glover and daughter
Ah, reality! What goes through the minds of New York's cab drivers (an estimated 70 percent of whom are non-white) and those of other cities is not: "There's a black man. I think I'll insult him by passing him by." Or, "There's another one of those people I dislike," but rather, "What are the chances that that fare will rob or kill me?" Cab drivers are not social scientists, they are simply entrepreneurs attempting to make a living and stay alive. They are aware of certain realities.

They may not know that in California, 33 percent of black males between the ages of 20 and 29 are either in jail, on probation or on parole at any given time. They may not know that in Washington, D.C., 42 percent of black males between the ages of 18 and 35 are either in prison or somehow in trouble with the criminal justice system. (See "The End of Racism" by Dinesh D'Souza.) But they do know that black males commit a disproportionate share of crimes, and many have experienced this first-hand. Driving a taxi is one of the most hazardous jobs in America.

Black women and children do not experience the difficulties with cabs that their male counterparts do unless they are heading for a dangerous neighborhood.

It's a shame that the majority of black males who do not commit crimes pay a price for those who do. The fact that even Danny Glover -- the possessor of one of the sweetest faces in the Western world -- has had to pay this price is sad. But it confuses the issue and unfairly defames cabbies to call this problem racism. It is simple caution, and who among us would do it differently?

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate