Taxicab Confessions: Racism on the Road

March 23, 2006 — -- The movie "Crash," which won an Oscar for best picture this year, posed the stark questions: Are we all driven by prejudice and fear? Do we all harbor racist thoughts?

"Primetime" tried to answer that question by finding out what happened when people were confronted with hateful racial slurs. Say you're riding in a taxi and the driver starts a racist tirade -- denigrating blacks, Arabs, Jews, Asians, or Hispanics. Would you argue with him, tell him to shut up and let you out, or just keep quiet? Or would you maybe even join in?

"Primetime" equipped taxicabs with hidden microphones and cameras and hired two actors -- one white and one black -- to play the racist cab driver in two different parts of the country -- New Jersey and Savannah, Ga.

Carrie Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University, says even complete strangers of different races can form a tight bond when one of them goes out on a limb and begins talking about race.

"Oddly enough, sometimes we're more honest with strangers than we are with people we know well," Keating said.

Us vs. Them

In a northern New Jersey town near New York City, the first fare is a Puerto Rican woman named Inez on her way to work, and she seemed to bear out Keating's claim.

Brian, the white cabbie, began by denigrating Arabs, then took it a step further. "Let's face it, people with brown skin shouldn't be allowed into the country," he said.

Inez pushed back, saying she didn't agree. "That would be a form of prejudice and I am far from being prejudiced," she said.

And she was quick to take issue with the notion that all Arabs are terrorists. "If you talk to a real Muslim who practices the Muslim religion, they don't trust the terrorists, the Arabs, because that's not the teaching of Islam," she said.

But then the conversation turned to Asians, and Inez complained, why can't they speak English?

"If you don't have it in English and you're in my country, then you don't want my business -- that's just the way I see it," she said. "So therefore, you shouldn't be allowed to have a business in the United States."

When confronted by "Primetime" after the ride, Inez said she was shocked by the cabbie's racism, but she defended her comments.

"I said exactly what I was thinking," she said. "They're here in this country, they should speak the language, our ancestors had to speak the language, and not be so blatantly obnoxious about the fact that they're anti-American but they're making money in our country and living in our country."

Keating said the cramped space of a taxi can be a kind of confessional, and turn quickly into an "us versus them" scenario.

"A taxicab ride is so personal and so intimate, so these two people are really negotiating their own social relationship by identifying out groups," she said. "It helps protect our own self-image."

The next passenger, Eric, a white man, was headed to work when he jumped in "Primetime's" taxi.

Brian the cab driver said to him, "I'll tell you, I won't pick up black people."

Eric's expression indicated he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"I don't trust 'em in or out of the cab, frankly," Brian continued. "When you're alone on a dark street at nighttime and you see two big black guys walking toward you, what is your first thought?

Eric replied: "I don't worry about it too much. I don't like to see two big any guys walking towards me."

After talking about Mexicans, Brian started in on Jews. "Do you work with a lot of Jews?"

Eric, a cable television producer, responded, "Sure. ... No problems there either. Sorry to disappoint you."

Brian asked Eric point blank if he was Jewish. Eric, who is Jewish, refused to say.

"You know they control all the money, right?" said Brian, as he continued to try and bait Eric.

Eric didn't bite, nor did he confront Brian about his racism. When asked by "Primetime" why he didn't say anything, Eric said the cabbie seemed like a "lunatic" and it wasn't worth picking a fight with him.

"As long as I let him know I disagreed with him and didn't just sit there and go along with him, I was comfortable with myself," Eric said.

During two days of driving in New Jersey, some passengers agreed with the driver and joined in with his bigoted rants. A few openly challenged the driver, including a woman named Adhana. "I think that this country is great, and I think if we start to open up and start to learn about one another, I think that we can start to mend and heal," she told "Primetime" after the incident.

Although many seemed uncomfortable with his rants, no one told the driver to shut up or pull over and let them out. Keating said that was not all that surprising.

"[It's a] tough situation. You basically entered a cab in which you put all your trust in a driver whom you don't even know," she said. "You're trusting this guy to get you to your destination safely. To challenge that person would be very difficult and somewhat risky."

Only Blind to Some Colors?

What happened 800 miles to the south, when "Primetime" took the hidden camera-equipped cab to Savannah, Ga.?

As with the taxicab experiment in New Jersey, most passengers in Savannah considered themselves openminded and not at all racist. Yet, while they defended some racial groups, they denigrated others moments later.

When Michael, the black driver, complained that Asians are taking over the neighborhood, one passenger insisted she was so color-blind she hadn't noticed and that she learned tolerance early.

But the conversation took a stunning U-turn when the driver mentioned Atlanta, where the woman lived until recently.

"Atlanta is like a weird deal nowadays. It's like going to like frickin' Cuba, don't you think? I mean, you like cannot go anywhere without seeing like people that don't speak English," she said.

The woman complained that Hispanics take Americans' jobs, but then she argued that not all Arabs are terrorists.

The driver decided to make one last complaint -- about Jews. "What's crazy is they control everything, but every time I get a Jewish person in the cab, I never get a tip," said Michael.

The woman replied: "I'm gonna tell you something: you never will! They want to keep hold of their damn money, they don't want to let go of it, you know?"

After the ride, the woman told "Primetime" she was just kidding around -- and that she serves on her company's diversity committee.

The final fare "Primetime's" cabbie picked up in Savannah was perhaps the most shocking.

The driver made a slur against Mexicans, and the passenger, a man from Texas, said: "Well, I like to go target hunting, you know -- Mexicans, Puerto Ricans."

The Texan continued: "But one of the things I hate worst is the lazy-ass ... n***er and especially these Savannah n***ers. They think they, you owe it to 'em, plain and simple. They don't have to work for all that paycheck.... And there's some of the damn poor white trash -- the son-of-a-bitches are the same g**damn way."

When asked by "Primetime's" John Quinones if he considered himself racist, the Texan said, "I don't think so."

He said his racist comments were just jokes. "I mean, that comes from Texas. Like in Texas they used to set back with all of the Mexicans and say, 'Well you're still wet behind the ears from swimming the Rio Grande.'"

No one topped the Texan when it came to offensive comments. But during the four days of the taxicab test, "Primetime" picked up 49 passengers -- and just seven of them challenged the drivers' racist slurs.

The experiment, though unscientific, led Keating to say America needs to have a national conversation about racial prejudice -- about the things we think, and the things we will even say out loud to a complete stranger when we think no one else is listening.

"You can't forget how important a conversation this is," she said. "Because if we don't start talking about what it would feel like to be the victim, then we're never going to get anywhere when it comes to erasing prejudice."