Educated To Think Black People Are Dangerous

By Hugh B. Price
National Urban League

 The likelihood that if you're African American (or brown-skinned Hispanic American), you'll have a difficult time catching a cab has been a common, and infuriating, "fact of black life" for years. But protests against this kind of "racial profiling" in New York City flared into the open early this month when actor Danny Glover said that several cabs had bypassed him, his daughter and a friend of hers, and that one driver who stopped refused him access to the taxi's front seat. Glover is more than six feet tall and has a bad hip, which under taxi industry rules entitles him to stretch out in the roomier front seat.

 Glover's complaint, after a year in which racial profiling by police became an explosive issue both in New York and across the country, was a bombshell. The response of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was swift and unequivocal. He ordered teams of undercover police officers onto the streets to determine if cab drivers are bypassing blacks and Hispanics. Those who do and are caught will have their cabs confiscated.

 That latter approach has been criticized on legal grounds by some, and even Glover has said through his attorney that a strict punitive reaction is not the way to solve the problem. That response is still being debated. Some cabdrivers and taxi industry representatives assert that cab drivers bypassing blacks is not prejudice, but largely a precautionary response to cab driver concerns about being robbed. But black Americans know from bitter experience that it happens all too often to all sorts of African Americans and Hispanic Americans---males and females, young and old, those dressed casually and those dressed in business and even evening wear---who clearly have nothing more in mind than using a taxi to get where they're going. They know that all too often it's not the cab driver's fear of being robbed, it's the cab driver's prejudice that's responsible. Indeed, what the current taxi controversy underscores is that old, negative attitudes about African Americans die hard. Or, that they don't die at all; they just get passed along to the newest wave of immigrants---now, immigrants from Africa and Asia. City officials estimate that two-thirds of New York's yellow cab drivers are from South Asian countries, and that many of the rest are from African countries.

 In this latest display of how significant racism---both the "petty" kind and the serious kind---remains in American life, some have made much of the fact that, unlike in the past, the cab drivers doing the discriminating are themselves "colored." But the prejudice some significant number of recent immigrants to America now hold against African Americans is an old pattern in American life: If you're a newcomer, an "outsider," it's always been clear that the way to become an American is to join the general prejudice against black Americans. That was sharply evident in the fierce bigotry black Americans faced from the early to mid-twentieth century in northern cities from Boston to the industrial Midwest where European immigrant groups had gained political power, and from most of the unions in the heavily white-ethnic American labor movement.

 The point is that regardless of the color of those doing the discriminating, the racism is the same and it comes from the same source: a "tradition" in American society which declares, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, but always insistently, that African Americans are inferior and not to be trusted. That immigrants understand this American tradition was revealed in a dramatic, and poignant fashion at a public hearing in Harlem this month in which African Americans and some immigrant cab drivers gathered to try to bridge the racial gap. The story of the meeting was reported in the New York Times. During the meeting, called by C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan Borough President, one native-born African American said in a tone that was both angry and sad, "I'm trying to figure out how foreigners come to this country and have such negative information before they get here."

 In fact, the answers to that question came from some of the immigrant cab drivers, who, like the African Americans present, seemed to be searching for a way to reduce the conflict. One, from Senegal, recounted the response of a friend back in the home country to his plans to move to Harlem: His friend predicted he would be killed. "That guy's never been to this country!" the Senegalese cab driver fairly shouted. "Where did he learn Harlem is bad?"

 Another cab driver, a 14-year veteran from Iran, who said that from the beginning he was warned by other drivers not to pick up black people, urged the audience to look at the problem another way. "It's not that drivers are racist," he said. "They've been educated to think black people are dangerous." That is a statement the whole of American society needs to ponder.

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