Uber’s Evolving Relationship with Discrimination

The perks of Uber over a regular taxi were glaringly apparent as soon as the app rolled out. Uber was more convenient than trying to hail a cab — you didn’t have to carry cash or leave your house to walk to a busier intersection and hold out your arm hoping someone would stop for you. The latter was an especially pressing concern for people of color, who often found that taxi drivers would refuse to pick them up, even if the car was vacant.

Uber nipped that issue in the bud by allowing drivers to see only the first name and location of their rider. The completely irrational fear that taxi drivers hold about being skimped on their fare, robbed, or attacked by people of color are somewhat quelled when Uber has personal information on the rider and payment arrangements have already been made. Passengers of color in neighborhoods that taxi drivers normally avoided like the plague were finally able to guarantee that they could get where they needed to go in a timely manner with Uber.

Still, when I first started using the app in 2012 — a short time after they expanded into DC, where I was living at the time — I did notice that in certain areas, mainly those that were predominantly black or low income, Uber drivers were rarely in close proximity. When I lived in one such neighborhood in Southeast DC, I would sometimes have to wait 15 minutes for an Uber to arrive at my location, as opposed to the three to four minutes I was accustomed to downtown and in areas with more dense populations of working professionals. Waiting an extra 12 minutes for a cozy ride to dinner in the back of a sedan is certainly a #firstworldproblem, but it did say a lot about the many ways in which racism could manifest itself. In this case, fewer Ubers in certain areas was a result of the technology gap that often leaves middle and low income communities of color several steps behind when big tech innovations like Uber hit the market. And then there is the very real question of who can afford a smartphone, a data plan, and an extra $7-20 for a ride?

But even that as changed in the four years since I first installed the app. Just this weekend, I was at the CTA Red Line 95th station in Chicago. For those of you who don’t know the geography of Chicago, the Southside is home to a majority population of working and middle class black folks, and 95th Street is the furthest south you can go via ‘L’ train. When I got off of the train, there were still multiple UberX’s available within a three-minute radius. Uber’s growth has meant that rides are no longer limited to sleek, black cars with heavily tinted windows. The company has made a push to bring on more drivers, without commercial vehicles or operating licenses, under their UberX and most recently, UberPool. The tech giant has come under fire from its drivers for slashing rates and drivers’ profit percentage, but its widespread popularity has led to more people from the communities of color where Uber was scant signing up to drive. This sometimes means shittier cars, but that’s OK with me as long as it gets me from point A to point B, one of which might be the hood.

But does this mean that Uber has completely done away with discrimination? Not exactly, in fact the new influx of drivers of color might result in a role reversal of the driver/passenger discrimination habits. Uber itself has claimed that the reason it refuses to allow passengers the option to tip drivers is for fear that their passengers may employ racial bias when deciding if, and how much to tip. Uber currently allows drivers and passengers to rate each other on a 5 star system at the conclusion of each trip. And studies have shown that just as black service providers are more likely to be tipped less than their counterparts, they are also more likely to receive lower scores in rating systems like Uber’s. While Uber has yet to comment or release data on the breakdown of their driver ratings, it’s safe to assume that their drivers of color are already at a disadvantage. The bottom line is that is no technology that shields us from the realities of racial discrimination.