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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Citizen: When it comes to racial disparities, policies are often worse than outright prejudice
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Civic leaders interested in addressing racial disparity are distracted by a shiny new tech toy.
Civic leaders interested in addressing racial disparity are distracted by a shiny new tech toy.
Credit:Tommy Washbush

Madison and Dane County have turned their focus to uncovering the causes of troubling racial disparities that are plaguing our communities. However, taking a look at how our own policies produce racial and economic disparities rather than blaming the problem on mere prejudice would better serve the discussion.

While much of this debate takes place in the abstract, let's examine a practical example: the arrival of the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. Though much has been made of the questionable ethics and legality of their operations in Madison, little has been said about how their presence impacts transportation equity or how best to regulate the taxi industry to protect our community as a whole.

Instead, civic leaders -- who were so concerned with tackling disparities -- have shifted gears because there is money to be made and cool to be cultivated. With the exception of Mayor Paul Soglin, our civic leaders have remained silent on the question of transportation equity and instead have been distracted by a shiny new tech toy -- equality be damned. So, while others have been unwilling to examine transportation equity, let's take a look at the practical effects of Uber/Lyft.

Our existing cab companies are required to take reasonable precautions to protect the public, such as holding insurance policies, attaining taxi licenses and registering their drivers, complying with rest-period restrictions to prevent sleepy drivers, remaining accessible to differently abled customers, and taking fares from any customer in order to prevent discrimination. But some civic leaders are arguing that Uber/Lyft should not be subject to any such regulations.

Media have jumped on the bandwagon. The Wisconsin State Journal has endlessly written on racial disparities, but then gleefully turned around to promote ride sharing companies without one mention of the proven disruptive impact on communities of color, the poor, the differently abled and the elderly.

It is obvious there are limitations to our understanding of local inequality through a purely racial viewpoint, especially when there has been such a clear shift in making government work best for those with wealth and means. For all that has been written about disparities, very little has been written about unequal policies in our civil institutions that contribute to the growth of such disparities.

By all means, let's have a discourse that makes white liberals, conservatives, moderates, business owners and civic leaders uncomfortable. We can't have politicians speak about sentencing disparities while busying themselves with building a new jail. We can't have elected officials talking about lacking funds for social services while also throwing money to developers whenever possible (see the Judge Doyle Square project). And we can't have politicians promote the idea that luxury apartments on Broom Street will benefit poor black folks on Badger Road.

And yes, even those who fashion themselves as leaders of communities of color need to avoid the insidious fatalism that begins to manifest as inferiority and low expectations. The truth is, there are half a million more black men in college than there are in prison; more than half of all black men graduate from high school in four years; and black men make up the same proportion of the college population as they do the general population.

Let's be certain that we don't just check people's prejudices. We should also make certain to check their policies and priorities -- those are far worse.


Mike Martez Johnson is Co-Chair and Elections Chair of Progressive Dane. "Citizen" is an opinion series that presents the views of the author. If you would like to reply, please comment or consider submitting an op-ed in response.

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