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The Gig Economy, Race, and Immigration

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The story of Nnamdi Uwazie, a Nigerian immigrant cab driver in Chicago, brings home a comparison rolling around in my head for a long time.

It’s 4 p.m. and Nnamdi Uwazie has taken in only $122, which means he has another five hours to drive to just cover his daily costs. Another 15-hour day in the cab and maybe nothing for him.

But this is how life has been lately for the 53-year-old taxi driver.

Since Uber and other ride-share businesses have crowded Chicago’s streets, his customers have become ghosts, and a livelihood that once sustained his family of five has virtually disappeared.

Two months behind on his rent, with unpaid light, gas and medical bills piling up, he struggles to stay positive.

Maybe he’ll get a customer going to O’Hare International Airport in the next few hours so he can earn some money today. Maybe Chicago officials, realizing the despair that has descended onto taxi drivers, will offer some help. Maybe the ride-share business will miraculously dry up.

Part of what Uber and other gig economy companies have done is to whiten traditionally immigrant jobs. And in doing so, it reminds me of how immigrants and non-immigrant people of color have been pushed out in the past when white people became economically desperate. The classic case of this is in California agriculture, where the good farmers of California had long sought the most exploitable workers, meaning people of color. But in the 1930s, when AAA policies led to farm consolidation and the eviction of tenant farmers led to waves of migration from the southern Plains and South to California (a much greater cause for more than the Dust Bowl, John Steinbeck’s excellent novels notwithstanding), Mexicans were forced out of those jobs and often deported across the border, along with U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Those became white people’s jobs because the needs of whites always trumped people of color. The biggest weakness of Steinbeck’s work is he forgot who worked on those farms before 1930.

The rise of Uber is obviously not exactly analogous to California farmers in the Great Depression, but it’s a reasonable comparison nonetheless. We live in increasingly precarious economic times for the working and middle classes. It’s not only that people have started driving because they need a job, but often that they have taken it up a second job to make ends meet or send the children to camp or go on a little vacation in the summer. Fulfilling the promised American Dream of consumption requires that extra money that maybe used to come through your white collar job or through your union but does not anymore. And so here is Uber and Lyft and other companies, ranging from delivery to cleaning, providing these opportunities. But there are already people doing those jobs, some of which have invested heavily and sacrificed a great deal. Cab drivers are a prime example of this. The taxi medallion system is a pretty terrible one, largely because it places the burden of risk entirely on the driver, but limiting the number of drivers makes some sense if we expect people to earn a living at the job. It’s true as well that we need more drivers, but the sensible policy is thus raising the rates charged, creating rideshares from bars, etc. We need a taxi system that provides both good jobs for people and provides the necessary services required by the public.

But we also have to remember that there are stakeholders with very little power in these traditional economies that also need some level of protection. Moreover, when we decide “I will drive for Uber and make a little extra money,” it’s at least worth remembering that you are probably taking money out of someone else’s pocket. Of course, this sort of individual action that accomplishes very little is the opposite of what I think makes change. But it can help us devise policies that regulate the gig economy in a way that makes sure it doesn’t equate as a white economy.

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