Maxwell School, Syracuse University

SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY
The Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

 

PAI 786 - Urban Policy
Professor Yinger

 

 

Case: Discrimination by Taxi Drivers in New York City(1)

On November 4, 1999, the well-known actor Danny Glover charged a cabdriver with discrimination for refusing to allow him to ride in the front passenger seat even though the back seat was already occupied. Mr. Glover was traveling with his daughter and her roommate, who were seated in the back of the cab. The Taxi and Limousine Commission's rules make it clear that Mr. Glover should have been allowed to sit in the front seat. This Commission is the City agency charged with overseeing the taxi industry.

At a news conference in the lobby of the Commission, Glover, who is black, said he was already angry because several hours earlier five yellow cabs had failed to stop for him, his daughter and her roommate at 166th Street and 7th Avenue. "I was so angry. The fact that my daughter's here to go to school, it really upsets me that if she's standing on the corner waiting to get a cab, she can't get a cab. It happens to her, it happens to countless people every single day. The fact that I'm a celebrity, the fact that I'm visible, allows me to draw attention to this."

And draw attention he did. Over the next month, a story about discrimination by taxi drivers appeared in The New York Times almost every day, and public officials around the state, and even around the nation, weighed in with their views -- and even with changes in policy.

On November 7, State Senator David A. Paterson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, a well-known activist in the black community, said that they were organizing a class-action lawsuit charging the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission with racial discrimination. Senator Paterson, a Harlem resident who is blind, said he had been "forced out" of cabs more than 100 times after he told the driver that his destination was Harlem. Separately, a group of minority officers in the New York City Police Department, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, said it had launched a campaign within the department to persuade officers on the street to devote more attention to the civil rights of those seeking taxis, and to issue summonses to taxi drivers who illegally pass by black and Hispanic customers.

A spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, Allan Fromberg, declined to comment on either the threatened lawsuit or the campaign proposed by the minority police group. But he defended the agency's efforts to root out racial discrimination by cabdrivers, which include fines and the use of undercover agents. "We don't simply wait until people complain," he said. "We take pro-active steps." In the Commission's undercover operation, for example, which is called "Operation Refusal," agents, many of them black or Hispanic, are dispatched across the city to hail cabs and pose as customers. When the cabbies fail to stop or refuse to drive to the customer's desired destination, they are fined. In the case of repeat violators, their taxi licenses are revoked, Mr. Fromberg said. Between the summers of 1998 and 1999, the commission conducted more than 3,700 of these "tests" and issued summons in 399 cases, more than 10 percent of the total, most of them to drivers who refused passengers headed for neighborhoods out of midtown Manhattan.

The calls for stricter enforcement were supported by many people. Ramona Whaley, a board member of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said "Of course I have been passed by," and David N. Dinkins, a former mayor of New York City, announced that the same thing had happened to him. In an op-ed piece in the New York Post, Floyd Flake, a former black congressman from Queens, wrote: "I don't know of an African-American who has not endured the shame and anger of having a cab driver lock his doors upon approaching them. An additional indignity usually follows: the cracked window and the question about where the rider is headed -- and then the driver pulling off, saying he's not headed in that direction." Mr. Flake dubs the practice "transportation apartheid" and "drive-by racism."

In addition, the official statistics suggest that the problem is a large one. Between July 1998 and July 1999, the police and the taxi commission issued 1,233 summonses to taxi drivers for refusing passengers. However, a city spokesman said that "we haven't determined yet how many of those are just pure service refusals and how many of those can be proven to be based on race."

New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani got into the act on November 11, when he announced an undercover sting operation building on Operation Refusal. This operation, to which we will return, soon became the center of the debate.  

Tax Drivers in New York City

The behavior at issue here does not simply reflect whites hating blacks. In fact, the cab driver involved in the Glover complaint is from southern Asia. Moreover, recent immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa now dominate the taxi industry in New York City, bringing with them new strains of bigotry.

Most often, according to people in the taxi industry, racism is perpetuated by cabbies whose attitudes have roots not only in colonial rule and the strict social stratification of their native lands, but also in the more recent distorted images of the global media. "Racist images flow throughout the world," said Bhairavi Desai, a native of India and the staff director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, a 2,000-member driver's group. Because of the impact of movies, television, and rap music, she said, part of the baggage of some new immigrants is an established, and sometimes deeply flawed, attitude toward race. Among immigrant cabbies from some nations, including India, she said, "many of the attitudes stem from a history of colonialism, and from a sense of competing for bread crumbs with other poor people."

Although no precise breakdown is available, from 60 to 70 percent of the city's yellow cab drivers are now immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, according to Mr. Fromberg. Among the other drivers, people born in the United States or western Europe comprise a tiny minority compared with the large number of immigrants from countries like Russia, Korea, and the Sudan. This is, of course, a big change from just a few decades ago. "It takes an issue that was once a classic confrontation between blacks and working-class whites," said Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at Hunter College, "and makes it now a conflict between African-Americans and immigrants of color, including a lot of black immigrants."

As always, the taxi industry provides a grueling point of entry to the American work force, and episodes of rudeness and discrimination sometimes result from a drive to keep the fare box running. "Some drivers really don't want to pick up minorities because they think it will mean ending up in neighborhoods where they won't be able to find another fare," said Edward Rogoff, a Baruch College professor and a longtime taxi industry analyst. This perception is fueled by the maps provided by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which stop at 96th street and therefore imply that northern Manhattan is, as one observer put it, "a wasteland."

 

The Problem of Anticipated Crime

Although racist attitudes and concerns about finding other fares no doubt play a role in discrimination by cabbies, the most central issue for most cabbies is undoubtedly their high vulnerability to robbery and attack combined with a perception of higher rates of crime among lower-income blacks and in certain areas of the city. Because of these perceptions, some cabbies refuse to pick up black men at all.

According to Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, a professor at Pace Law School who accompanied Glover to his press conference, cabdrivers today "have adopted the same patterns of racial profiling that emerged when most drivers were Irish, Italian-Americans, or from somewhere else in Europe. No one is educating these people that we are not dangerous criminals," said Scott-McLaughlin.

The ethical quandary facing cabdrivers was clearly expressed by Paul Frietz, a black native of Haiti who has been driving New York City taxis for 15 years. He recalled being robbed, assaulted, and having his hand broken in 1997 by two passengers, both young black men. "Now, Frietz said, "I simply don't pick up teenagers. You're suppose to stop for everybody, but do you really think cabdrivers are going to put our lives on the line? That is nonsense, and you can be sure 99 percent of the drivers agree."

Jacques Proro, another black Haitian with many years of experience as a cabdriver, echoed Frietz's remarks. "There are two things you have to make sure of as a taxi driver, that you are safe and that you get paid," said Proro. He said that he had sometimes decided not to pick up customers who looked threatening or appeared to be unable to pay. "You have to look before you stop," he said, adding that "unfortunately, the problem is often with my people, with black people." Mohammad Kazem, a cabdriver who emigrated from Iran, puts it this way: "It's not that drivers are racist. They've been educated to think black people are dangerous."

Mr. Fomberg, the spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said that city rules did not prohibit drivers from using discretion in selecting customers. "It is perfectly within the rules to refuse someone who is acting belligerent or shows clear indications of being drunk," he said. It is only discrimination, Mr. Fromberg explained, if customers are rejected solely on the basis of their race.

Although troubling, the perceptions of cab drivers contain at least an element of the truth. According to a 1994 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Taxicab drivers and chauffeurs face unusually high risks of becoming homicide victims. This occupation accounted for almost one-10th of all victims of job-related homicide but less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation's work force. Nocturnal trips, especially those to secluded areas, make these drivers particularly vulnerable. Almost half the cabdrivers died from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m."

Moreover, it is a bitter fact of life that black males in America commit crimes of violence far out of proportion to their numbers. They account for more than 40 percent of those arrested for violent crimes and 56 percent of those arrested for murder. Thirteen percent of black men are convicted felons. These facts affect the perceptions of all Americans, black and white. "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life," lamented the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1993, "than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery -- then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."

No one keeps statistics on the race or ethnicity of people who rob or murder cabdrivers, either in the nation as a whole or in New York City. However, police officials in New York City confirm that young black men are disproportionately represented among those arrested for crimes against cabdrivers.

 

Giuliani's Crackdown

The Giuliani sting operation began on November 12 with 150 police officers and taxi inspectors. In later months, the operation involved 150 officers and taxi inspectors at work on two or three unannounced days, with 20 to 30 undercover officials on duty the rest of the time. "We are perfectly entitled to do this," Giuliani said at the news conference announcing the operation. "I know we're going to get the same howls and screams and yells that we got when we did this with drunk drivers."(2) Giuliani pitched this operation as a toughening of two existing but only nominally successful undercover efforts, both called Operation Refusal, one run by the Police Department, the other by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Both have issued summonses against drivers, he said, but neither has taken away any cabs. "What we're trying to do," the mayor said, "is intensify it dramatically in order to make the point."

In the new operation, police officers and taxi inspectors work undercover in multiracial groups of three. As a supervisor observes, a black officer and a white officer standing near each other attempt to hail a cab. If the black person is passed up in favor of the white person, something blacks say happens all the time, the driver is issued a summons on the spot suspending his hack license (the official name for the license to drive a taxi). The police then take the cab to the nearest police station, where it is to be picked up by either the taxi owner (who is invariably not the driver) or another licensed driver. The suspended driver then faces a hearing before an administrative law judge within five days.

Mr. Fromberg said that a driver with a clean record would probably get the license back immediately, but would still have to face a separate hearing at the taxi commission on the charge of refusing to pick up a passenger. The taxi commission's penalty for a first offense is $200 to $350. A third offense calls for a mandatory revocation of a hack license. "The drivers clearly know that refusal is against the law," said Diane McGrath-McKechnie, the taxi commissioner. "And this is the Giuliani administration's attempt to ratchet that up so people understand. If the cabdrivers can't see decency on a human level, they will understand it on an economic level."

Several black officials, including State Senator Patterson, praised the mayor's decision. But Mr. Glover's lawyer, Mr. Scott-McLaughlin, immediately criticized it as the "wrong approach" and a "Band-Aid" on a longstanding problem. "Using the police to demonize the drivers is not the approach that Danny Glover wishes to take," said Scott-McLaughlin. "Instead, the Taxi Commission should increase its diversity training for drivers" to offset their distorted images of America and their attitudes rooted in the social stratification of their native countries.

Norman Siegel, the director of the Civil Liberties Union, said that his group was considering a suit against the city claiming that it is overstepping its legal authority by taking away a driver's livelihood on the basis of an accusation. "The problem is that they are punishing drivers before giving them a chance to explain their side of the story. There is due process of law, so you can't just hang people first and then give them the trial afterward." Mr. Siegel applauded Mayor Giuliani's effort to stop racial discrimination by cabdrivers, but he said the effort was narrow and ill conceived. He said he was working with cab owners and drivers to put together a more comprehensive approach to the problem that would add education to enforcement. "If we want to reduce stereotyping and racial discrimination, which we do, we need to educate and persuade, not merely coerce and punish," he said. "Otherwise, nothing will change."

Cabbies' reactions to the crackdown on taxi drivers ranged from grudging acceptance to disbelief. Yes, many cabbies say, it is rotten, it is cruel when a black man can't get a taxi to take home from work. But not as cruel as when a taxi driver gets robbed at gunpoint -- or stabbed -- or killed -- by a passenger. "The crackdown is unfair; he's just doing this for politics," said Yousif Ibrahim, a cabdriver who was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Egypt. "Let the mayor drive a yellow cab for a day and see what will happen to him." Other drivers said they had been cheated too many times by people who don't pay, or mugged too many times, to take another chance. "We try to make a living, that's all," said Michel Cajuste, another Haitian cabbie. "We are not racists." Another cabdriver, who did not want his name to be used, said "I'd rather be fined than have my wife a widow."

A few cabbies expressed sympathy with the mayor's plan. Sammy Arafat, an immigrant from Egypt, said he favored the mayor's crackdown, even though he had been victimized by robbers. "I think what the mayor has said is O.K., because it is wrong to have cabbies turning down little old ladies or people on the basis of race.," he said. But Arafat said he would continue to use his judgment about whom to pick up, even if such decisions did not strictly conform to the taxi industry crackdown. "Sometimes, people just look terrible," he said. "Then I won't stop."

Other citizens had decidedly mixed reactions to the Mayor's new operation. After all, many New Yorker's said, being a taxi driver is a rough and marginal business, full of danger and uncertainty. So the fact that taxi drivers are sometimes picky about who they choose as passengers cannot be simply chalked up to blatant racial discrimination. "Eight out of 10 times, if a black or Hispanic tries to stop a yellow cab, the cab is going to go by," said Fitzroy Jordan, a car service driver. "But I have friends who are cabdrivers, and I know that they are afraid of being robbed, and not being paid, and I can understand that."

Lydia Washington, a black accountant in midtown Manhattan, said cabbies had refused to take her to her home in the Bronx, but she also feels uncomfortable with Giuliani's solution. "I think he needs to do something, but taking the cab away? I don't know," Ms. Washington said. "If it was anybody but Giuliani, I'd say it was extreme." Nuruz Rahman was very upset about the plan. "Cabbies come from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Isn't there a trace of racism in the outcry against them. Instead of using our police as decoys, perhaps we should use them to better protect our cabdrivers."

"I wouldn't put it past a lot of cabs," said Nat DiTerlizzi, who works for Off-Track Betting. "You have no reason to doubt Glover. It's demeaning. But it's your cab, it's your money, you do what you want. It's not right, humanly, you know, but there's freedom of choice, too." Pinky Pandya, an auditor at a Manhattan accounting firm, said "I think its a problem, and I think they do judge. But for them, it's for their own protection, I guess. I mean, if someone looks threatening, would you let them in your car?"

 

The Policy Choices 

Many policy makers are skeptical of the Mayor's sting operation. Some say it is simply another instance of a mayor trying to get free publicity at the expense of, in this case, cabdrivers. Others say that Mayor Giuliani should have addressed the issue sooner, particularly since the problem is well known and has vexed previous mayors for years. Still others say that many cabbies will probably return to their discriminating ways as soon as the sting ends.

A report issued by the State Attorney General, Elliot L. Spitzer, at the end of November also undermined Mayor Giuliani's credibility on this issue. This report found that minorities are disproportionately stopped and searched by New York City police officers -- behavior based on exactly the same kind of racial profiling that the taxi sting operation is designed to stop. New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir angrily denied the validity of this report.

Of course, other policy makers applaud the mayor for taking a key first step. Enforcing laws against discrimination is a central element in any solution to this problem, they say. People in this camp urge Mayor Giuliani to follow up with other, broader policies, so that this crack-down will be more effective than similar one-shot efforts by previous administrations. The key issue, these policy makers say, is to find ways to keep taxi drivers safe. Far too many drivers are beaten, robbed, or killed by their passengers. The city must find ways to protect drivers if it wants to persuade them not to discriminate against passengers.

Gorman Gilbert, former chair of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, suggests that the taxi medallion owners, not just the taxi drivers, should be brought into the picture. In New York City, it is not legal to operate a cab without a medallion, but the people who own the medallions rarely drive themselves. Instead they hire drivers. "Suppose medallion owners were fined," Gilbert says, "when their drivers refused service. And suppose repeat offenders could have their medallions taken away. Then owners might work harder to make sure that drivers felt safe." Policies that medallion owners might pursue, according to Gilbert, include "equipping taxis with safety devices like two-way radios, silent alarms, video cameras, vaults for storing fare money, and automatic vehicle location systems that could help the police find cabs quickly in times of emergency. Owners might also establish safety procedures for protecting drivers headed toward high-crime areas."

 

The Assignment 

The New York City Council has decided to hold hearings on possible discrimination by tax drivers. You have been asked to testify. The Council wants to know your views about the Giuliani crackdown (as a matter of policy, not of law) and your views on additional or alternative policies toward taxi discrimination that should be implemented in New York City. The Council would also be glad to have your help in understanding this problem: why do taxi drivers discriminate against certain groups and who should be held responsible for fixing the problem?.
 

Bibliography

Elisabeth Bumiller, "Cabbies Who Bypass Blacks Will Lose Cars, Giuliani Says," The New York Times, Nov. 11, 1999.

David W. Chen, "Many Riders See Nuances in Bias by Cabbies," The New York Times, Nov.12, 1999.

Gorman Gilbert, "Keep Cabbies Safe, and Passengers' Rights Will Follow," The New York Times, Nov. 13, 1999.

Jeff Jacoby, "Cabbie Snubs in NYYC: Is It Racism or Is It Prudence?", Syracuse Herald American, Nov. 21, 1999, pp. D-1 & D-6.

Thomas J. Lueck, "After Complaints by Actor, Group Will Sue Taxi Panel," The New York Times, Nov. 7, 1999.

Thomas J. Lueck, "New York's Cabbies Show How Multi-Colored Racism Can Be," The New York Times, Nov. 7, 1999.

Thomas J. Lueck, "Safety Issue Is Stressed by Cabbies in Bias Effort," The New York Times, Nov. 11, 1999.

Nurez Rahman, Letter to the Editor, The New York Times, Nov. 13, 1999.

Kit R. Roane, "Safir Attacks State Finding of Racial Inequity in Searches." The New York Times, December 2, 1999.

Somini Sengupta, "In Cabby Bias Debate, Rifts Go Beyond Skin Color, The New York Times, Nov. 19, 1999.

Monte Williams, "Actor Danny Glover Alleges Bias by Cabbies," The New York Times, Nov. 4.

 

____________________

1. This case was written by Professor John Yinger solely for the purposes of class discussion. All the quotations and some of the sentences in the text are taken directly from the newspaper articles in the bibliography.

2. In February, the mayor announced that the police would seize the cars of people arrested on charges of driving while drunk

 

Trustee Professor of Public Administration and Economics