Systemic Racism and Personal Responsibility

Six months ago, I began driving for Lyft. It didn’t take me long to learn that if you hope to make a decent hourly rate, you need to drive smart. That means driving during peak hours prioritized by Lyft — commute times and Friday and Saturday night – when there were also likely to be rate surges due to higher demand. It also meant maintaining a 90% acceptance rate and meeting Lyft rides-per-week goals to earn bonuses.

Even so, it was still frustratingly uneven. Some days I could gross $25 an hour or more; others I’d make less than $10 an hour, even with the bonuses. Sometimes, I’d get a pick-up around the corner from my last drop off, at 2 or 3 times the normal fare rate, get a great tip, and make a bundle. Other times, I’d be asked to drive 25 minutes to the pick-up location, only to find out it was a short ride, with a fare of $3 or $4. I quickly realized that with gas over $2.50 a gallon and me driving a minivan, I was giving those rides for free or even losing money on the deal.

Of course, long pickups aren’t always like that. One time I drove half an hour to a pick-up and ended up with a $45 fare to downtown. But that was the exception. More often than not, the 25-minute pick-up is a ride where you’re lucky if you break even.

So I started cancelling rides with long pickup times whenever my acceptance rate was high enough that the cancel wouldn’t jeopardize my weekly bonus. Other Lyft drivers had obviously come to the same realization as I had. When I did accept far away riders, they would often say things like, “Oh, I’m so glad you didn’t cancel the ride. I had four drivers cancel on me before you accepted.”

It was about that time, I started to see another pattern. The majority of those long pick-ups are to certain neighborhoods on the west and northwest side of Cincinnati. And once you are out in that area, you tend to get stuck there, being sent from one north/western neighborhood to the next and back again, often driving 12 or 15 minutes to get to yet another short ride that doesn’t pay much. Which means your profitability tanks. One day I calculated that after costs, I’d only made about $4 an hour driving around out there. And then I had to drive 20 miles to get home, cutting even further into my earnings.

On the other hand, if I am kept around the universities, downtown, the east side and Northern Kentucky, the drives to the pick-up locations tend to be shorter, the rides average a bit longer so my net earnings are greater. Plus those areas have surge pricing more often and tips are more frequent, so I can make a lot more in those central/eastern neighborhoods than the north/western ones. Clearly, it makes financial sense to stay in those areas as much as possible. I started thinking about automatically cancelling all long pickups, especially those out north and west. Even if it dropped my acceptance rate and made me miss the weekly bonus, I was pretty sure I could make significantly more money if I stayed in those more profitable areas, and only accepted rides close to me.

Of course, as you can probably guess, the north/western neighborhoods are populated primarily by people of color, while the central/east are predominantly white. The north/west area is mostly lower middleclass neighborhoods, so demand isn’t as high as the wealthier east side neighborhoods, and more expensive rides are out of reach for many residents, as is the bar hopping, festival going, and dinners out that comprise the most lucrative rides for Lyft drivers.

As I started analyzing the cost-benefit ratios and planning my driving strategy, I had a moment of clarity and crisis. I saw that optimizing my driving income would result in me providing less service to predominantly African American riders and neighborhoods than I did to predominantly white riders and neighborhoods. And that when I had cancelled those long rides I had unwittingly participated in and perpetuated systemic racism, without even being aware I was doing so. Indeed, I was complicit at the very same time that I took pride in my intentionality in providing all my riders with friendly, efficient, top of the line service without regard to race, religion, orientation, nationality, legal status, etc, knowing that many of them probably dealt with prejudice on a regular basis.

Perhaps most eye-opening was the lesson in how surreptitious systemic racism can be. There were enough outliers, enough long-pickup times to rural areas populated by predominately by white folks to hide the pattern and make it difficult to see. Anyone can understand how schools in low income neighborhoods with lower tax revenues are not going to be able to provide as much opportunity as schools from high income neighborhoods with greater tax revenues when they all depend on taxes for funding, and how that creates a vicious cycle. But this was more insidious and hidden by financial logic.

If I drive the way that makes the most money for me personally, and a lot of other individual Lyft drivers do so too, we unconsciously create and contribute to discrimination that leaves black people waiting longer for rides, and being cancelled more often than white people. While there are no doubt some drivers who cancel anyone with a “black sounding name” and any ride from the projects, I’m sure that most Lyft drivers are not racist. I know I’m not.

I also don’t think Lyft designed their system to be racist, either intentionally or in effect. They certainly have clear policies against discrimination. But the sheer mechanics of supply and demand coupled with the drivers’ desire to maximize their income in the context of a country with significant racial economic disparity and largely segregated neighborhoods inexorably creates a rideshare system that perpetuates discrimination against people of color. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s the invisible hand of our nation’s economic system, and a lot of drivers probably have no more idea than I did that they are contributing to the problem.

Solving the problem by changing the context of segregated neighborhoods and a significant racial economic gap is clearly well beyond my capacity as a lone driver, or of Lyft as a single corporation. Those are thorny national issues. Reducing financial inequality and creating more diverse neighborhoods is a long-term process involving changing how our economy works, and challenging trends in self-segregation as well as banking practices and public perception of what makes a safe and desirable neighborhood. It’s a challenge we have to meet head on, but it’s not likely to be solved in the short run.

Solving it within the context our unequal society isn’t any easier. It isn’t likely that Lyft drivers as a collective are going to decide to forgo earnings to be even-handed in their driving. I don’t know that’s even reasonable to ask them to make that sacrifice, given that recent studies have found that some 10% of rideshare drivers actually lose money, 40-50% of us don’t make our state’s minimum wage, and that those who do average 8-10 bucks an hour. None of us are rolling in riches.

Lyft could provide “long pick up” incentives to encourage drivers to accept those potentially money-losing pick-ups. And they could add bonuses for rides initiating in neighborhoods that are generally less profitable. But to date, no rideshare company, including Lyft, has made a profit. Increasing their costs by increasing bonuses at best puts Lyft’s profitability even further away, and at worst could potentially put them out of business.

Of course, Lyft could pass the cost of incentives along to the riders in the form of surcharges for long pickups or higher rates in those less profitable areas, but that would only exacerbate the problem, adding more expensive rides to the list of discriminations black riders face. Not to mention it would create a self-defeating feedback loop – surcharges and higher fares would drop demand in those north/western neighborhoods, resulting in longer waiting time for drivers between rides, longer distances to pickups, negating the gains such surcharges and increased fares would provide.

Lyft could also increase fares in more lucrative neighborhoods to subsidize bonuses for drivers working in less lucrative ones. But that creates other negative feedback loops. Higher fares in more profitable neighborhoods will lead to decreased ridership, which reduces their profitability and negates any gains from bonuses in the subsidized neighborhoods. Not to mention, it reduces the pool of funds available for subsidies and would no doubt cause rider backlash if it were to become public.

In other words, it’s not likely that either the national or the Lyft system is going to change any time soon. Which leaves me with a thorny dilemna. I need income. I also need the flexibility Lyft gives me to be at home to care for a family member recovering from a medical crisis. In my case, traditional 9-5 jobs are nearly impossible; even a fixed schedule part-time job could be challenging. How then, do I balance financial necessity with personal integrity as someone who believes racism is immoral, and has worked to reduce racism and its effects since I first saw riots over bussing in my hometown of Boston back in the 70s?

Prophet Muhammad told us, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white.” (Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim) He also said: “Avoid doing injustice to others, for on the Day of Judgment, it will turn into manifold darkness, and safeguard yourself against miserliness, for it ruined those who were before you.” (Sahih Muslim).

I have to ask myself, can wanting to work for 15 dollars an hour rather than 4 be considered miserliness? I don’t think so. Everyone deserves a decent wage for honest work. And even working full time at $15 an hour barely provides a living wage. That can hardly be called miserly.

I also have to ask myself if bending to financial necessity when you know your work perpetuates systemic racism can be seen as anything other than doing injustice to others? That’s a trickier question. It’s not like I’m making racist judgments on the worth of individual human beings. I’m not treating my riders badly, not changing my treatment of them because of their race. Nor am I refusing any rides because of the rider’s skin color or their name. It’s all just a financial equation.

But just because there is no face to face discrimination and hurt feelings, does that make it ok? I don’t think so. Not at all. After all, people are being served unequally with a clear racial bias, even if they don’t know it, even if my intent is just to make a few more bucks. Maybe it’s not as immediately painful to the people affected, maybe it’s a lesser injustice, but it’s still not right.

The truth is, I don’t know what to do. If I were a rich dilettante, driving to keep me from being bored, I’d only drive in those north/western neighborhoods. But I’m far from rich. Should I put my ideals over my practical, day to day financial and familial needs? Or should I dump my ideals because I simply need to maximize my income? Should I try to come up with some balance between the two?

The fiscally responsible thing is to stay with Lyft, maximizing my profits. I need the money. And working more hours for the same take home pay, or for less than minimum wage, is not just something I want to do, it impacts my whole family, providing less for them, and taking me away when I need to be at home to provide care. But even thinking about continuing my complicity in systemic racism makes me queasy.

I could leave Lyft and live up to my highest ideals. The rub is, I know my leaving Lyft won’t change the system and its racist effects. They will continue chugging along quite happily without me. My quitting would be nothing more than a rather impotent appeasement of my ethics which exacerbates financial challenges for my family.

Only, it’s clear to me that the small abdications of personal responsibility of countless individuals are precisely what allows systemic racism to continue unabated. It’s the mindset that nothing I can do will help, so I might as well take the job that’s best for me, that leaves the system in place.

At least for now, maybe what I need to do is address the financial exigencies while doing my best to promote a more just and fair system, whether that’s going to Black Lives Matter protests or writing columns like this one.

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