NEWS DAY | Whitewashing Minnesota racism

When is it NOT racist for a cab driver to refuse to stop for an African American person? Maybe when it's late at night? Or in a certain section of town? Or if the African American person only wants to go a short distance? Or if the driver has had bad experiences, or heard of bad experiences, or is afraid of African Americans?

The law says something different. The law says taxi drivers may not refuse to accept any orderly person or persons anywhere in the city (Minneapolis code, Section 341.170). They may not discriminate based on race, color, creed, ancestry, national origin, sex, gender identity, disability, age, or marital status (Minneapolis code, Chapter 139).

So when De'Vonna Bentley-Pittman described her daughter's experience — cab drivers wouldn't stop for her (African-American) daughter, but did stop for Caucasian reporters standing next to her, you might think there would be an outpouring of sympathy for her daughter and outrage at racist behavior.

You might think so, but you'd be wrong. Instead, there has been a lot of excuse-making for the cab drivers, along with questioning of the legitimacy of her account. Some of the excuse-making came in comments and some in outraged emails to me.

I'd like to thank De'Vonna Bentley-Pittman and her daughter for having the courage to tell their story in public. We need to talk about race and racism in the Twin Cities, in Minnesota and in the country. Personal stories make that conversation more real than stacks of studies and reports.

I'd also like to thank the thoughtful commenters who suggested that this become an opportunity for dialogue and learning.

Finally, I'd like to tackle some of the strange statements about racism that have been made, in comments and in emails.

x x x x x

#1: There could be many reasons why a taxi didn't stop.

True - but in this account, taxis DID stop — for Caucasian customers, but not for African American customers.

"The reporters are able to stop four cabs within ten minutes, and in an hour we were able to stop none. One of the reporters turns to me and apologizes, “I have never seen anything like this in my life.” I asked her if she would be surprised if I told her that this is nothing new for me. They continue to get cabs to stop by telling the cab drivers that they are the ones in need of a ride, but when they point to us and say that their friends need the cab instead, the cab drives off."

#2: Maybe the cab driver didn't stop because she only wanted a short, five-minute ride.

And how, exactly, would the cab driver know that before she got into the cab?

#3: We don't know what time of day this happened.

Right — we don't know that. What time of day is it okay to refuse to take African American passengers? When does the clock make this a non-racist act?

#4: We don't know where she was trying to hail a cab.

She said "downtown." But, again — are there certain neighborhoods where it is NOT racist to refuse to take an African American passenger?

#5: "A lot of taxi drivers were killed by people who flagged them, many of those killing happened in North Minneapolis."

Cab driving is a very dangerous job. A 2012 article about the killing of a cab driver (the most recent in the Twin Cities) noted that

"Taxi drivers have one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, with only police officers and security guards facing a higher likelihood of being assaulted while working, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Drivers are 60 times more likely to be killed on the job than other workers, according to a 2000 study. Some 45 taxi, bus and limo drivers were slain nationwide in 2010, according to the latest federal statistic."

The Pioneer Press listed 11 cab driver homicides since 1995. Three of these were in North Minneapolis.

It's possible to understand taxi drivers' fear. Understanding the fear does not change the fact that refusing to stop for African American passengers is a racist act.

#6: The writer endorsed Uber and could get free rides if people click on the link she provided.


So what?

How does that change the meaning of the taxi drivers refusing to stop for an African American passenger?

x x x x x x

Cab driving is a tough job, and one that doesn't pay particularly well. Now Uber and Lyft have come to town, and threaten to take away some of the "best" business — the more affluent, credit-card and smart phone-equipped business. If I were a cab driver, I'd feel defensive and under attack from all sides.

The other side of the story is Brittany Bentley's experience of racism and how it resonates through her life:

"What makes anyone think that we don’t have money in our bank accounts? What makes them feel anyone else is worth picking up and we are not? Contrary to the preconceived notions placed upon us that night, we are all destined for success. We are all in a Master’s program at the University of Minnesota ... we are all employed, most importantly we all had cab fare ..."

"Tackling what a particular race makes another feel like is an important discussion," wrote De'Vonna Bentley in response to some of the comments. That's a dialogue worth having, and it has to start with honest acknowledgment of the existence and experience of racism in our cities and state.


Related stories:

Minneapolis cab drivers perpetuate racism as Kare 11 reporters witness blatant bias

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  • Excellent commentary from Mary Turck about racism in Minneapolis - first, black customers unable to get cabs (and white reporters nearby flagging them down easily) and then people explaining away the racism. Face up to it, friends, we have a country that needs some changing for the better. The good news - that change is possible to make. - by John Slade on Sat, 06/28/2014 - 12:23am
  • White cab drivers are not necessarily the worst offenders. I have driven for Rainbow Taxi on and off since 2010. I have picked up many black customers who report that they tried to hail a cab, and many cabs passed up the opportunity to get their business before I came along. There are customers of all races who are refused rides to the North Side. Taxi drivers who get a radio order are not supposed to pick up "waivers" until they pick up and drop off their assigned customers. However, many cab drivers don't have that excuse for refusing to pick up black customers. I only work day shifts and have had only a few negative experiences with customers. No bad experiences with black customers to date. I have not yet been beaten or robbed. Day drivers often have very little cash on them. Night shifts are inherently more dangerous. - by Doug Mann on Mon, 06/30/2014 - 6:33am
  • Drove taxi in Camden NJ and Philadehia, as a college student. Only the student drivers would go into some parts of town, especially at night. We needed the money, but the more experienced drivers, regardless of race, just wouldn't go to some areas. I'd get bigger tips sometimes from bad areas,because they knew most cabbies wouldn't even drive there. The dispatchers knew the names and addresses of the regular customers, like elderly needing to get to a pharmacy, or to a family event. Dispatchers would let us know it's was a "known" customer. Going to an unknown customer was dicier. Me and two friends drove together, I was the only one not robbed, one at gunpoint, one at knifepoint. One of our co-drivers, also a college student, was killed one summer. I guess I'm saying it was understandable why cabbies avoided some areas, and some times of day. But I never heard of anyone not stopping if they were flagged down? Lots of the cabbies had guns under the seat - you could get fired, and arrested, but they felt safer. Late at night, they sometimes fired at the brick walls over our heads if we gathered at a corner waiting for calls. It was a joke to them! At night it was drunks, prostitutes, or shift workers who needed rides. - by Frank Donahue on Mon, 06/30/2014 - 8:37pm

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Mary Turck's picture
Mary Turck

Mary Turck (maryturck [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer, editor, teacher, and lifelong activist, and former editor of the TC Daily Planet.


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Who are these cab drivers?

Can one generalize about the race/ethnicity of the drivers who aren't stopping for certain people?


Alan Muller