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

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Econophone

Why not sensitize cabbies?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHEN YOU reach the stage in life that actor Danny Glover has, you don't expect racism to play much of a role in your day-to-day routine. But last week, the "Lethal Weapon" star held a news conference in New York to publicize his recent encounters with racist stereotypes on the streets of Manhattan.

Like many black men (and sometimes women), Glover had trouble when he tried to hail a cab for himself and his college-age daughter and her roommate. First, several empty cabs passed him by. When a driver finally stopped, he refused Glover's request to sit up front where he could stretch out his legs, which Glover explained were bothering him because of an old hip injury.

During a press conference he held to complain about racial stereotyping, Glover blamed racism for his unpleasant experiences. But if it is racism, it's certainly not the old-fashioned prejudice of whites against blacks.

Most of the taxi drivers who passed Glover by -- and the rude one who finally picked him up -- were "people of color," according to Glover's lawyer, who spoke at the press conference.

Not surprising in a city where the Taxi and Limousine Commission estimates that about 70 percent of New York cabbies are immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Only a small minority of New York City cab drivers are U.S.-born or European immigrants, and this pattern is repeated in cities across the country.

But if you ask these mostly brown-skinned drivers why so few are willing to pick up black riders, you'll get the same answers: fear of being robbed by the passenger, fear of being robbed by others in the neighborhoods where these passengers live, fear of being ripped off of the fare they're entitled to. One African taxi driver I ride with frequently admitted that he routinely asks some black customers to pay their fare at the beginning of the trip, even though it's against company policy, because he's had so many customers flee the cab without paying.

Racial stereotyping? Absolutely. But the problem is not an easy one to solve, in part, because the stereotypes in many cases reflect the drivers' own experiences. Steven Holmes, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote a column this spring on his own encounters with this kind of racial stereotyping, as both victim and perpetrator.

Holmes, who is black, was stopped a few weeks earlier by a D.C. police officer while walking near his home in a predominantly white neighborhood. Holmes became angry when he discovered, after calling the local precinct, that the officer had lied when he said Holmes matched the description of a burglar in a housebreaking nearby. There had been no break-ins, leaving Holmes to conclude the police stopped him because he was black.

But Holmes' anger abated when he realized that he'd been guilty of the same kind of stereotyping years earlier when he had driven a taxi in New York while putting himself through college.

In three years of driving, Holmes was robbed twice, both times by young, black men. " I did not quit driving a taxi. I liked the job too much," Holmes said. "But I became more choosy about who I let in my cab. I still picked up black women, older men, couples, families and men dressed in suits. But my sense of tolerance and racial solidarity was tested every time a casually dressed young black man, especially one in sneakers, tried to hail my cab. Most times, I drove right by," he admitted.

How do we fight the temptation to judge people by the color of their skin?

There are already laws on the books in most cities that make it illegal to discriminate against passengers, but they haven't ended the practice. Glover recommends more training for drivers.

I'm usually skeptical of such racial-sensitivity programs, but maybe it's worth a try. Taxi drivers have the right to avoid danger, but law-abiding citizens also have the right not to be presumed dangerous simply because they're black.


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