Six years ago, when Uber first came on the scene with its sleek black cars, the company was selling upper-middle-class customers a vision of luxury, telling them that even the not-quite-rich could have private cars. As Uber's CEO, Travis Kalanick, put it, "When we started in San Francisco, it was a lifestyle play. We wanted to push a button and get a ride…we just wanted to be baller in SF.”
But the vision of itself Uber was selling over the last two weeks in its battle against New York's City Hall was a very different one: Uber as champion of racial equality, and an indispensable tool for economic mobility in the working class. And however disingenuous the campaign was, it worked: On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio backed down, saying he would not request a cap on Uber's growth to alleviate traffic congestion. Uber proved once again that it is strong enough to fight tough political battles.
It's true, by most accounts, that Uber has made it easier for people of color to hail a ride home. For years, everyone from Danny Glover to Hannibal Buress has spoken out against the racism in the New York cab driver pool. The arrival of Uber in New York meant that, finally, African American customers could catch a drama-free lift from point A to point B.
But Uber's utility for minority customers is more of an unintended consequence than an explicit part of the company's plan — its interface simply makes it harder (but not impossible) for drivers to refuse potential passengers on the basis of their race.
To hear Uber tell it during its strong-arm campaign against de Blasio, though, racial progress was part of the plan all along. The YouTube ad Uber released to rally support for its service in the Big Apple featured sad, stranded New Yorkers, seemingly in desperate need of a savior. “While taxis often refuse people in minority neighborhoods, Uber is there," the ad says.
Uber is increasingly parading diversity wins in its political battles, not just in New York but in other cities. Uber's global campaign touts the car service as a job creation engine for women in developing nations. Its 'Drive to Thrive' campaign plays on the “eliminating racism” pledge of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago while showcasing women (many of them women of color) who were empowered by the platform to take control of their work lives.
But the marketing of social justice for Uber is just a convenient means to an end: boosting Uber’s appeal and influence. The promotional ads ignore the ongoing allegations of deeply entrenched sexism at the company and the mounting reports of driver misconduct, often involving women passengers. Uber is still promoting its 'employing women globally' ad even after its job creation partnership with UN Women was cancelled in March 2015, due to concerns about Uber's labor practices.
Uber is also a system that can be gamed. At the current moment, a driver could be racially prejudiced but it doesn't serve them financially to act on those impulses. Uber’s code of conduct isn’t so different than that of taxis—after all, the State of New York mandates that drivers take people where they want to go—but Uber enforces the policy better, with an immediate system designed to report drivers that are rude or refuse service for no apparent reason. As Jenna Wortham explained in Matter:
It’s also not entirely clear that Uber’s system is completely foolproof. Because drivers can reject riders for any reason, you have no way of knowing whether it’s because of your rating, your name (from which race can often be inferred), or the neighborhood you’re in.
Back in 2012, I wrote a piece for my blog at Racialicious concluding that for black passengers, Uber was ultimately worth the premium price. This week, Black writers in New York and other cities penned op-eds all saying the same thing, that we would rather pay a little more for a drama-free ride than suffer the indignities of racism while trying to pay for a cab like everyone else. I may be skeptical of Uber’s aims, but as far as I know, my race has not been a factor in my interactions with Uber drivers. They ask no questions about where I want to go, and I receive the same polite service that I imagine all Uber users enjoy.
But while Uber has improved my life, the stance that Uber is only a humble service looking to serve the masses gives me pause. Just look at the words of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on Uber’s 5 Year Anniversary:
We get this great opportunity at Uber to go to a mayor and say, let us serve. Let us serve and let’s create 20,000 jobs in the next couple years. Let us serve and let’s reduce pollution in your city. Let us serve and let us take 10 cars off the road for every Uber that’s fully utilized on the road. When we show up to that new city, a lot of companies out there ask for handouts. We don’t ask for special favors or handouts. And whenever we’re asked to abide by modern regulations that protect the rights and safety of passengers and drivers, we do – because we believe in those protections, too.
No business is that altruistic, and Uber is not a B corporation or a non-profit organization. While a long way from the days of marketing the business as “pimping,'" the new face of Uber is a just a slicker, more tightly run political operation, whose message shifts depending on the local conditions. Uber will uphold equality, and champion the rights of the underserved — as long as it benefits Uber’s bottom line.
While Uber is the belle of the disruption ball now, taxi companies didn’t start off refusing riders service and outright sneering at patrons based on their race, either. Uber's disregard for regulations, lack of transparency, and mysterious ranking system could easily enable racism to resurface later on. What is to say that Uber won’t repeat the taxi industry's flaws once they replace cab drivers as the incumbent mode of transportation?
While explaining Uber’s public perception to Vanity Fair, Kalanick explains “What we maybe should’ve realized sooner was that we are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber.” And what better playbook to steal from than progressive, anti-discriminatory rhetoric? Uber’s big push into social justice is working for now, but no one should be surprised if all of this talk of equality and opportunity takes a back seat, now that the latest battle has been won.