True stories: PLAYTHELL BENJAMIN: Fare deal for all

Catching a New York cab is easy - if you're white

One night last month, Kelvin Joyner, an Afro-American waiter, was trying to get home, just like thousands of other New Yorkers. But his attempt to catch a yellow cab, a routine act for whites, almost cost him his life.

When Mr Joyner approached the cab to get in, the driver, anAsian immigrant, sped off with Mr Joyner's hand caught in the door. He was dragged an entire city block until the cab was forced to stop by a traffic light.

Luckily, he survived. But his injuries, including broken ribs, left him hospitalised and in debt. It has also left New York's black and Hispanic communities outraged. The situation between yellow cab-drivers - 89 per cent of whom are immigrants - and riders from these communities could explode into violence at any moment. Yet Rudolph Giuliani, New York's Republican mayor, has said nothing. What is most disturbing about his silence are the persistent rumours that it is inspired by substantial financial contributions to his campaign from yellow cab fleet owners.

That could certainly explain why Mayor Giuliani has said nothing, even though New York's former mayor David Dinkins, himself an African-American, was recently passed up by a cab-driver in favour of a white fare. State Senator David Patterson and his wifeexperienced an even more humiliating encounter with a non-black cabbie. After being picked up in downtown Manhattan, the Pattersons were ordered out of the car when they gave a Harlem address as their destination. When Mrs Patterson protested, pointing out that her husband is blind, the couple were threatened with bodily harm.

Many whites, and some Asians, will argue that the behaviour of these cabbies are justified because black males commit a greater percentage of street crimes than others. This is the argument of City College professor Michael Levin, who has recommended that all young black and Hispanic males be made to ride on special subway cars isolated from the rest of the passengers. But those who use such arguments to justify discrimination against law-abiding African-Americans would never accept such logic for themselves.

For instance, Michael Levin is Jewish. But if someone were to argue that the gentile majority shouldn't allow Jewish men to become investment bankers because the majority of those convicted for insider trading on Wall Street were Jews, he would be among the first to denounce such talk as anti-semitic. And he would be right.

To most African-Americans here, it appears it is only when discussing the shortcomings of black males that pundits feel justified in using race-based generalities which obliterate the normal distinctions of character and accomplishment that guide their discourse on other groups.

With such thinly disguised racist talk emanating from the highest levels of society, it is no wonder that cab-drivers, many of whom may be unfamiliar with either the etiquette of American race relations or the letter of the law, feel free routinely to treatblack men as criminals.

One result of this is that black and Hispanic men who are passed up by cab-drivers are starting to take down their licence plate numbers, then filing a complaint with the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

The TLC, which regulates the taxi industry, should move swiftly, because the situation is getting explosive. Just the other day I was taking my son to a doctor's appointment and was passed up by three cabs. When a fourth cab stopped by a traffic light, Isimply opened the door and got in. When the cab-driver, an Asian immigrant, saw what I was doing, he put the off duty light on. When I refused to budge, the driver acted as if he was going to try and remove me. It's a good thing he decided against that because, at 230lbs, I was going to try my best to make him think he had grabbed George Foreman by mistake.

To combat the dangers of assault, cabs should have bullet- proof windows and silent alarms directly connected to the police. Beyond that, anyone who doesn't want to serve the entire citizenry should find another job, or suffer the slings and arrows of anoutraged public.

One way in which members of the riding public are expressing their outrage is by joining a class action legal suit with the Metropolitan Livery Association to break the yellow cab monopoly on street pick-ups. At present, livery car drivers, many of whom work for black and Hispanic owners, can serve riders only by appointment. They're prevented from picking up on the street because they do not own medallions. And it is almost impossible for livery car-owners to get them, although Metropolitan Livery Association spokesmen Frank Mazella and Kenny Arthur have declared: "We're not yellow, we'll go anywhere."

The number of taxi medallions is controlled by the city government, which issued 11,000 in 1930. This amounts to a state-supported monopoly; the price of a medallion has gone from a few hundred dollars to the prohibitive sum of $210,000. Given his free-market Republican rhetoric, Mayor Giuliani should be against this. So far, the silence from City Hall is deafening.

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