Laura Washington: Uber upends problem of ‘hailing while black’

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I flinch every time I get into a taxi.I have been dissed, ignored, waylaid, and mistreated every which way by taxi drivers. If you are African American or live on Chicago’s South or West Side, you know the story.

My biggest taxi meltdown came when I hailed a Yellow downtown, late for a meeting. I gave him directions. He drove the other way. An argument ensued. He sneered, “that’s why I don’t like picking up ‘you people.’ ”

The driver was from Africa.

It’s called “hailing while black.”


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A recent survey found that 66 percent of African-American Chicago residents believe that taxi cabs “deliberately refuse to pick up blacks.” Four of every 10 blacks surveyed said they do not use the city’s taxi services.

The research was conducted in February by Cornell Belcher, a consultant who has done polling for the Democratic National Committee and for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.

Even caucasians who participated in the survey agreed that taxis discriminate against African-Americans.The study, Belcher writes, “reveals the capacity of mundane activities to perpetuate racial inequities.”

The study was commissioned by Uber, the ride-sharing enterprise that is turning the transportation world upside down.America’s No. 1 disrupter could be a racial and economic game-changer.

UberX, the company’s low-cost car option, connects riders and drivers to economic opportunity.Its app-driven technology is color-blind. Its drivers are blanketing Chicago.

No more hailing while black: 54 percent of UberX trips in the city of Chicago “begin or end in an area deemed as underserved” by taxis and public transportation, the company says.

In June, UberX drivers connected more than 500,000 trips on the city’s South and West Sides, according to spokesperson Brooke Anderson.

The service is blasting throughChicago’s job deserts. There are currently 8,000UberX drivers from the city’s South and West Sides. Last month Uber teamed up with the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to recruit 10,000 new drivers.Local organizations are hosting recruitment fairs in neighborhoods like Austin, Garfield Park and Auburn Gresham over the next year.

UberX changed her life, says Austin resident Bree Rodriguez.

A year ago, she had lost her job. The African-American single mom had dropped out of college. She and her baby were living with her mother.

A friend suggested she drive for UberX.

Now Rodriguez, 25, is driving 30 to 40 hours a week, when and where she wants. UberX gives her flexibility and time. Time to spend with her son, who will be 2 in November.“It’s like school — he even has homework!” Rodriguez told me the other day. “I can handle all my running, spend time with my son, pick him up from school.”

“The money is good,” she said.“In my previous job I was pretty much living from paycheck to paycheck.”

In Chicago, UberX drivers have earned $200 million since the service was launched two years ago, Anderson says. In the first three months of 2015 alone, UberX drivers in Chicago have earned more than $50 million.

Rodriguez has earned enough to rent her own 2-bedroom apartment.She’s moving in this month.Next month, she plans to enroll at Harold Washington College.

As it grows, Uber must continue to address valid concerns about safety, regulatory issues and unfair competition.

Still, Uber is disrupting the bad old ways, and empowering the people and neighborhoods who need it most, with no new taxes or government programs or handouts.

That’s worth hailing.

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