Brief thought exercise: is ridesharing service Uber racist, or the antithesis of racism?

I really like Uber, but there are two distinct ways to look at it along the “Are they potentially racist or not?” spectrum. Here’s a simple breakdown. Feel free to offer thoughts in comments.

Maybe they are: In most (not all) communities, taxi drivers — as in licensed taxi drivers — tend to be immigrants. They probably don’t have a ton of money (again, generally speaking) and are likely minorities. Meanwhile, the “leisure economy” — which is in essence what ride-sharing is — is often done by non-minority college students or people between jobs or grad students or what have you. In this way, are non-minorities essentially taking money away from minorities by eating up their cab routes? (Also, please factor in the cost of a licensed medallion to this discussion; it can be expensive.) This led to protests in Seattle, accusations that CEO Travis Kalanick is “a sociopath,” and now you’re starting to see even more push-back on ride-sharing out of airports around the country. Then, consider this situation in Nashville:

The cab is … a cab, with the wear and tear of years of full-time, professional driving. Jemal is pleasant, an Ethiopian immigrant who moved to Nashville 13 years ago and has been driving taxis for about seven of those.

He worries about Lyft and Uber, he says, because he pays hundreds a month on insurance alone for his cab, plus other fees to Yellow for the privilege of driving it. “If I make $100, I put $5 in my pocket,” he says.

Final thing here: to get an Uber, you essentially need a smartphone and a credit card. Those are less common among minorities, generally-speaking.

Maybe they aren’t: Read this first about the process of trying to get a cab as an African-American, and how easy and no-frills (albeit a bit more costly) Uber has made that process. The same conceptual argument is made here, and then … regarding the “Seattle immigrant driver community vs. Uber” notions above, that debate is a bit more nuanced. It appears a lot of immigrant drivers within Seattle are, in fact, switching sides:

Bahru came to the United States in 2005 from Ethiopia. During his first three months in Seattle, he spent every day at the library teaching himself English. From there he was able to get a job as a janitor. In 2007 he began working as a taxi driver for Yellow Cab.

“I think I made more money driving a cab, but there’s a lot of things I count — like driving my own car [and] making my own schedule — as worth money,” he said.

Also worth noting that Seattle’s Uber GM (the city head, essentially) has noted in different interviews that a good portion of Uber drivers in the Emerald City are, in fact, immigrants — as opposed to the potential view that it’s all middle-class white kids looking for walking-around money.

Uber’s mission statement involves “evolving the way the world moves” and “making cities more accessible.” By definition (sheerly and on face), that’s the antithesis of racism.

What do you think? Racist? Not? Not an issue? Varies by city? Or is the thing we should really be discussing the licensure? 

Ted Bauer


  1. Thoughtful observations on what’s clearly a complex topic. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around different parts of this question and your post helped to anchor what’s important. I don’t think we’ll see a simple answer to this one…

  2. I requested a Lyft ride tonight for my friend, who is black. My boyfriend and I are white. When the driver arrived, I stuck my head out the window to yell down that we’d be right down (since my friend hadn’t made it outside yet). He patiently waited a couple minutes until the three of us arrived downstairs. My boyfriend and I said goodbye to our friend, and our friend started walking toward the Lyft car… The driver then began pulling forward. I took a step toward the car, and he stopped. Until I indicated that our friend was the passenger, not us. The driver started pulling away again, yelling, “I can’t,” and “He is smoking a cigarette!” before accelerating and high-tailing it down our street — as if that were some sort of excuse, since he was clearly okay with driving me and my boyfriend, who also had lit cigarettes.

    I don’t typically use ride sharing services (though I have made a few exceptions for various reasons– this time was one of those exceptions) due to a number of issues I take with them. Primarily, lack of regulation. Had a taxi snubbed my friend like this, I would have been able to file a complaint with the city. In this situation, the only option I have found so far is a generic “contact us” form to email Lyft from their website. I doubt anything will come of contacting them. I will do it, but Lyft drivers are independent contractors and I don’t imagine the company will have much interest in doing much other than telling me that drivers are allowed to cancel rides just as customers are.

    There is a reason we have regulations, laws, taxes, etc., and it’s sad that ridesharing services are touting themselves as the solution to problems with cabs while operating free and clear of any burdensome laws that might protect their customers (and for that matter, drivers as well). Convenience isn’t worth giving up those protections and oversight afforded to us by regulation. I’ll be sticking with cabs from now on.

    Of course, I realize that this is only one driver, though I suspect it might be more prevalent an issue than it seems. How Lyft responds to my complaint will also be of bearing on the matter.

    I tried searching for stories of others who might have had similar experiences, but it seems most view these services as a much needed alternative to racist cab drivers. I know your post here is old, but it came up during my search, so I figured I’d at least put this out there even if it’s not quite on topic in terms of the larger questions in your post. I hope it was coherent. It had already been a long day, so now I’m just tired and angry.

    Fingers crossed I see some resolution to this.

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