Council Member Wells calls for investigation of “racial discrimination by DC taxi drivers and the DC Taxicab Commission’s handling of these discriminatory practices”

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From a press release:

“Councilmember Tommy Wells sent a letter to the Office of Human Rights Acting Director Mónica Palacio calling on her to utilize the authority of the office to investigate racial discrimination by DC taxi drivers and the DC Taxicab Commission’s handling of these discriminatory practices.

“It has recently come to light that DC residents are routinely passed by when trying to hail a taxicab—not because the taxi isn’t available, but because of the resident’s race or disability. DC Taxicab Commission (DCTC) Chairman Ron Linton’s response to the allegations—claiming that this practice is the result of “economics,” not racism—gives me grave concern. DCTC’s role is to ensure that drivers follow the law, not the least of which is the Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in public conveyances.

“My request is three-fold:

1) Open an investigation into how DCTC handles the complaints it receives for failure to haul. This should include—at a minimum—a review of the number of complaints DCTC receives, the resulting investigations and disposition of those investigations, as well as its record keeping and procedures; OHR should then make appropriate recommendations for action;

2) Review current regulations, policies and procedures related to DCTC’s education and training for the taxi industry as it relates to the Human Rights; and

3) Provide the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety with a summary of the number of complaints on this topic that OHR has received over the last three years, along with the disposition of those complaints, and any action OHR has taken to reform the taxi industry.”

WUSA9 has been investigating this issue within the taxicab industry for more than a year, reporting several times about how this failure to haul disproportionately impacts African-Americans.  The most recent report, filed this past Thursday, reiterates this outrage, documenting that 33% of cabs passed by black passengers, while zero passed by white passengers.

The full letter from Councilmember Tommy Wells is attached:

CM Wells Full Letter

83 Comment

  • I have literally had cab drivers tell me they don’t pick up black people. In those words. “I see a black person, I keep going.’

    • i’m glad i don’t take taxis.

    • I’ve had cab drivers tell me that other drivers voice this. I’m black. I’ve been passed many times and even kicked out of cabs. The drivers come up with so many bs excuses why they cannot take me to my destination. One time I had a white lady hail a cab for me, once I got in the driver said he was off duty and forgot to turn off his light. In my 8+ years in DC I have accumulated too many stories of this discrimination.

  • “Recently come to light”? I’m glad that they’re looking into this, but I think one would need to have been living under a rock to have only learned of this issue recently. Hasn’t this been a problem since, oh, the invention of the taxi?

    • That is why I will continue to give uber my business.

      • While Uber is more reliable, it also means that African-Americans are paying more for the same service that a taxi could provide. It’s quite literally an upcharge for blacks, considering how much Uber charges.
        Messed up on so many levels.

  • justinbc

    While I certainly do not doubt this happens, I wonder how one would go about proving why exactly a specific taxi failed to stop to pick up a passenger? I also wonder how many passengers (of any race), especially if inebriated in some way, accuse cabs of passing them by that are 1) full, or 2) off duty. This second question should be easier to avoid now that cabs are being forced to have standardized signage, but the first question still seems pretty difficult to answer. I also would like to know more about the DCTC’s claim that it’s about “economics”. What economics are involved in not picking up a passenger, especially if you haven’t even pulled over to discern their destination?

    • Let me start by saying that in responding to your question, I am describing my experiences in multiple cities — not DC. I am a black female. I have never been publicly inebriated. I’m “middle class” meaning that I dress in a way that suggestions that I can pay for my fare. I say these thing because as a black female, they are things that I have to think about when trying to do things like hailing a cab. I have had cabs pass by me on the street to pick up a white passenger a few yards away. Oh, yeah, maybe they genuinely didn’t see me waving my arms. I have had cab drivers tell me they were “not on duty” — when I approach them at a stop light — and seen them pick up other passengers. I have had cab drivers tell me to get out of their cabs — or say “I don’t go there” — something that is illegal. And I have stopped calling the cab companies — because I am tired of having yet another chore added to my list of burdens because of other people’s racism. The “economics” are likely based in the assumption that a non-white customer won’t pay the fare — and/or that once the driver gets to his or her “dangerous” destination, that he or she won’t be able to , or willing to, pick up another fare.
      “Proving” it is hard. But I bet you can’t find a single black person who doesn’t have at least a few stories. Probably the best way to “prove” it is the same way biases in housing have been demonstrated — by using test customers of different races. Of course you can never prove that the driver is lying when he or she says ” didn’t see” someone trying to hail a cab. And it’s hard when someone views you as “invisible” to prove that you are not.
      Driving while black, hailing a cab while black — it happens all the time.

      • justinbc

        I can definitely relate to your stories. I routinely hail cabs for one of my best friends because he can never seem to catch them. I just don’t know how I would ever prove that it’s because of me that it was successful, especially when almost every cab driver I’ve ever had in DC was a black male. We both live in Capitol Hill, and he’s had the same excuse given to him about not going there, yet I’ve never once heard it. I also always get in the cab first though before giving my destination, because I know they cannot refuse you legally. What do you do in those instances where they say they won’t go somewhere?

        • justinbc

          Oh and I should note that he’s almost exclusively given up on cabs and now uses only Uber. I stick with cabs because for me they don’t really pose a problem.

        • I get out of the cab. As a female, I already feel somewhat vulnerable getting into a car with a strange man driving it, hoping that I’ll get where I want to go. To have a pissed off man driving it doesn’t make me feel any safer — just because the car is a cab. Should I have to do this? Of course not. But my priority is my safety and well-being.

          • Good move. I’ve had some terrifying experiences with cab drivers as a female. Most of them come from cultures that expect women to be docile and obedient, so if you challenge what they say they might feel compelled to do something that will “put you in your place”. 🙁

          • justinbc

            Yeah I guess that does put a different factor into the equation. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same in your circumstance, as unfortunate as that may be. I’m sure traveling solo only makes it worse.

      • Sheesh! I wouldn’t pick you up either…

    • The economic argument is probably that many African-American residents live in neighborhoods that are farther away from downtown than the cab driver would prefer to travel. The driver is concerned that he cannot get a return fare on the street near the passenger’s destination. Therefore, the trip is not worth the time.

      • justinbc

        Right, but then how do they extract racism out of that equation? “Oh we really love black people, we just don’t want their money.”?

        • pretty easy – a cab driver doesn’t know the destination until s/he stops to ask. A cab assuming that a black person hailing a cab in NW DC isn’t going to another location in NW DC is stereotyping. My wife bought her first car specifically because of her difficulties getting taxis from near Howard U to jobs/internship in the ‘Golden Triangle.’

          I also have a close friend who was in full NYU Law School graduation regalia with her mother and her grandmother and she couldn’t get a cab to take them home (she lived in Brooklyn – but that’s really irrelevant).

      • By that logic, taxis should refuse to take passengers to the Palisades, or drop offs at Black Salt, orpassengers to Sibley Hospital. All are far from town, and unlikely to result in a return fare, but this does not seem to happen.

        • Well they’d rather not, but it’s illegal to refuse destinations, and you can’t tell where someone is going before you pick them up.

          • Linc Park SE

            I’m white, female and have def had cabs tell me they won’t go to my destination. A few years ago I had a house on 19/H St NE – and had a hard time getting a cab to take me there. And frankly, for years it was a hassle to get a cab to/from Barrack’s row! On the topic of racism – I dunno – I think I’ve had maybe one white driver in 20 some years – so it seems like it’s black drivers not picking up black passengers?

        • It’s also possible that the cab drivers assume that they’ll get in more “trouble” or that negative consequences are more likely if they refuse to take an affluent, white passenger to Sibley – than if they refuse to take a non-white, non-apparently affluent passenger to Anacostia.

          • Agree (with Anonymous 1:15). And to the extent a taxi driver says that his failure to pick up African American passengers is due to “economics,” he would be using race as a proxy for a far away destination, so they couldn’t even make it into the taxi for him to find out where they are going and be illegally refused. If the same driver picked up a white affluent-seeming passenger who asked to be taken to the Palisades, the driver would need to expressly refuse to take them there, and kick them out of the cab.

      • I agree that this is part of the “economics” argument, but it’s totally bogus. I am a white female who lived in Arlington. It is illegal for DC taxis to pick up fares in VA, so economics would say that I should have been refused fares constantly. Yet in four years living there (and probably over a hundred taxi rides), I was only refused once.
        In part because of DC taxi drivers’ attitudes like this, I now almost exclusively take Uber (and now UberX, which is cheaper than a taxi, and much better service).

        • How is UberX cheaper than a taxi? It’s $5 base fare +2.50/mile. A DC taxi is $3 base fare +$2.16/mile. Even with the meter still running when stopped at lights, I don’t see how an uberx ride would cost less (if there are no suitcases involved).

          • UberX usually ends up costing about the same as a taxi and cheaper than an uber or hailo taxi since there’s no call fee, but since the tip is included, the total cost usually ends up being less. I’ve had some not great drivers who didn’t really know where they were going, but that’s happened in regular cabs too, and all of the cars I’ve been in have been waaaaay nicer than cabs and the drivers have been really nice.

          • Oh and, UberX’s base far is $3.50, there’s just a $5 minimum

          • UberX base fare is $3.50 + $1.85/mile + $.20/minute ($5 minimum). Uber also rounds down and includes tip. So say your bill comes to $6.91, Uber charges you $6 (and you don’t tip on that). I find that it is almost always cheaper than a cab+tip, the drivers are not maniacs, and the cars are actually in nice condition. The only major downside, is the drivers do not know their way around the city, so you either need to tell them how to get where you want to go or they can use GPS.

          • Sorry, started typing my response and then got distracted. Did not refresh to see AG’s response

          • UberX is $3.50 base fare + $1.85/mile and $0.20/minute wait time. And that includes tip. A ride that I frequently take is $19 in UberX. An online fare estimator puts it at $21-22 for a taxi, and that doesn’t include tip. Even when UberX wasn’t available, I still took Uber over taxis because the quality of service is SO much better.

          • justinbc

            I had no idea UberX was that much cheaper, I’ll definitely have to look into using them more often.

  • Wells trying to garner some small slice of the African American vote. Nothing more.

    • I don’t know about that. He’s made it clear he’s very much for improving transit so this fits in well with his claims.

    • Exactly! I’m not sure how that’s going to work out for him. As far as I’m concerned he is no better than Sharon Ambrose.

  • I’m from economics, and I’m here to help. If Ron Linton says that his drivers’ racial discrimination is based on “economics, not racism”, he’s only 1/3 right. Yes, economics plays a role. But it would be much more accurate to say the practice results from regulation as a result of economics and the outcome is racism.

    When a good is regulated as strictly as taxis (or hospitals, for a more important example), the result is that supply and demand don’t match up. Taxis combine regulation of entry & regulation of price. In practice, that works out such that there are more willing fares than drivers at the regulated price. The drivers want to maximize revenue, and so they prefer fares who tip more. But they aren’t allowed to pre-arrange the tip, so they use heuristics to profile good tippers ahead of time. They hang around businesses rather than residences (it’s easy to tip on the company card), and high-income areas rather than low-income. And they use easy marks of underlying wealth to profile and discriminate against potential low tippers. In D.C., unfortunately, an easy way to avoid the poor is to skip black people. (Do they also skip well-dressed black men leaving corporate offices? That would be surprising.) That’s racism – it doesn’t matter that the motivation is economic, rather than white supremacist or fear of crime or whatever else. The fact that most cabbies are dark-skinned probably rules out KKK membership.

    The policy solution is to allow the market to operate. Why should the government be engaged in a massive protection racket on behalf of a bunch of racist insiders? Seriously – is there any public good here? Getting a taxi license should basically involve a criminal background check (no kidnappers allowed), a rigorous driving test, and a $50 processing fee. Taxis are inspected the same as any other car. Taxi drivers legally approved in any of the nearby communities should be allowed to pick up fares in all of them.

    If we can’t change policy, we can at least change behavior: TAKE A STAND AGAINST RACISM, AND DON’T TIP.

    • p.s. There are important margins other than tipping that might be in play, for example, blacks may be more likely to go to a destination that is out of the way, forcing the cab to drive back empty, or less likely to end up at a hotel or corporate office with good fares coming out. The same logic applies.

    • justinbc

      Wouldn’t not tipping just perpetuate the stereotype though, causing the discrimination to be justified in the taxi driver’s mind?

    • I don’t know what you mean by “allow the market to operate.” Should drivers be allowed to charge whatever fares they want, even if it’s different fares for different people? Use whatever cars they want, no matter how old or unsafe? Refuse to take people to certain areas? Charge extra fees at their whim? These are all things that are regulated and that a truly free market wouldn’t regulate.

  • Thank you. Next let’s work on the sexism and homophobia.

  • There are many TV and Police reports on this problem. Jim Vance (TV news personality), did many stories on this. This is one of the most common problems in DC life going back – at least – eighty years.

    It used to be white Taxi-Cab Drivers didnt pick up blacks. Now, its black ethiopian Drivers dont pick up blacks. Racism is not about superficial “skin color,” its about culture. Its about what some racist asshole thinks skin color means.

  • I’ve talked to two cab drivers about this, one in DC and one in NYC. They both confirmed that they don’t pick up black people because they’ve had repeated negative experiences with them as passengers. The DC cab driver went on to say that it’s not because they are black, but because they’re American. He said the way many African Americans act, an African would never do the same. Neither were particularly proud about it, but both were clear that it wasn’t racism so much as protection for themselves.

    • Imagine if the police operated that way… oh wait, they do.

    • Is this real?

      • Why wouldn’t it be? The only surprising thing to me is that they would confess to it.

        • I meant all the apologies for the discrimination with the clincher “both were clear that it wasn’t racism”.

          • do you consider africans and african-americans to be of different races?

          • Anonymous 1:54 – you don’t have to be of a different race to be racist.

          • Anon 2:08, that’s not the point being discussed here. The point here is that you’re not a racist if you’ll pick up Africans but not African-Americans, because they are not different races.

          • I could have worded that better, I was trying to convey that their motivation was self-preservation in reaction to previous experiences rather than just not liking black people (they were both black).

            I’m not saying whether I think they’re being racist or not, just trying to articulate their POV.

          • i think people often confuse the terms Discrimination, Bigotry, and Racism.

          • Is that what they said? That they’re able to discern black non-Americans on the street and pick them up?

            Not that that’s important at all; as if you’re doing anything but revealing your ignorance of the level of nuance involved in American racism. “Races” aren’t a thing outside of how they’re socially defined. They flat out said they refuse service to black Americans. I can’t figure out what significance the superficial resemblance of these otherwise culturally distinct perpetrators is supposed to hold for you. Do you imagine it holds any for those affected by the prejudice?

      • A lot Africans and American black people clearly behave differently (in numerous ways good and bad) and that is not racist. This is to say that any persons of different countries, cultures, etc.. generally have different behaviors

    • Is it right to lump all blacks together? There are crimes that are committed by others, however, the group as a whole is never lumped together. I know plenty of blacks that are successful college-educated individuals that would never think of robbing or murdering someone, myself included, and yet we are prejudged based on the actions of others.

  • I’ve been passed by cabs on a regular basis, I’m a black male. Its funny only because of how messed up the situation is, but having a white friend helps to hail a cab. I also don’t rely on cabs anymore. Uber has been great and totally eliminates the trouble of being passed up because of being black. It was bad news for me when DC tried to kill Uber, needless to say, I’m glad that Uber is still around. An Uber can be more expensive but well worth it especially now that there is UberX and Lyft. Also no need to constantly carry cash.

  • I don’t deny this happens and it’s awful. I am not black but have a service dog and especially when I lived in SW, got (illegally) booted from cabs on a regular basis, so I use Uber or other apps to call a cab and let them know about the dog. I have noticed, though, that even with the new light-up signs, people still try to hail the cabs I’m riding in, when it couldn’t be clearer that it’s not for hire. I really wonder how many people reporting this are trying to hail occupied cabs.

    • I’m anonymous 11:53 — Really, we know. Most of us really can tell when the cab we were trying to hail from a block off passes us with a passenger inside. Oops. No biggie. And many if not most of us have had experiences that make it very clear — including drivers who say things like “I won’t go there”. Being the recipient of racist practices in this city of ‘Northern Charm” is often not subtle. Although again, this is not specific to DC — I’ve had this happen in multiple east coast cities. I’ve also had some drivers talk openly with me about “not usually picking up ‘the black people'” — and refusing to turn the meter on until I tell them my destination. One of the hardest things about racism for me has been “proving” to people who are not themselves likely to experience racism that racism Really Does Exist.

      • justinbc

        I think anyone who says racism doesn’t exist is simply ignorant, or selling something. Proving to them is insignificant, because you’re unlikely to change their mind. Proving something in court, or to a regulator, on the other hand, is a completely different challenge, and I think that’s what’s at stake here with the issue Wells is discussing.

  • This is exactly why, as a DC native and black man, I refuse to patronize any DC Cabs period. UBER(X), [email protected], ZipCar, Metro, MetroBus, CABI, my own car(s) or walk is part of the mix for my transportation in DC, but NEVER DC CABS. This has been going on much longer than these recent reports. This has been happening since the late 80’s in my experience and reported on in the news in the past with no results or solutions from DCTC. Cabs used to be different, in my experience, when I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s but that has changed as the people driving the cabs has changed. Ron Linton should be fired to state on TV that it is an economic decision to discriminate and those decisions by cab drivers are not racial, yet he has no data to support his assertions. And second, as a DCTC official RL should be implementing solutions or consequences for the cab industry for these violations of the regs. Sounds like RL supports the cab drivers over the public. DTC and RL…epic FAIL.

    • I agree — DC cabs used to be different — but prior to the ’80s, many of the cab drivers were African American men, so my experience as a Black female tended to be positive, although, to be fair, I rarely took cabs at that time. My experience with Barwood cabs — a block away in Montgomery County, though, has been uniformly positive. So I do wonder what Barwood does to “get it right” compared to my experiences with DC cab companies which has been much more variable, and occasionally awful.

      • justinbc

        “prior to the ’80s, many of the cab drivers were African American men, so my experience as a Black female tended to be positive”

        But this is still the case… I’ve never had a cab driver in DC that wasn’t a black male. Zero times.

        • I find that very hard to believe, unless you almost never take cabs. Or unless by “black” you actually mean “non-white”.

        • That’s why I specifically said “African American men” — as in born/raised in America, vs “black men” — a group that would include African-American men as well as black men who come from other countries and cultures. (Yes, I realize that some of those “black men” are actually from Africa. Next time I’ll be even more specific.)

        • Never had an Arab or South Asian taxi driver in DC? I’ve had a few, and I take taxis on average once a month, if that.

    • gotryit

      +1 on calling out Linton. How is that statement about “it’s just economics” not a serious violation, coming from a person high in the DC government? I can imagine Wells thinking – “WTF did he just say?!!” and only being able to write “gives me grave concern”. I read that as “GFY Linton – I’m going to bulldoze your entire agency.”

  • This is a hoot from an incompetent! Stupid people are always trying to remove ‘foot from mouth’ when those same stupid people thought that the customer (public) was asleep or as stupid as they are.

    This is the response from the DCTC Chair on the DCTC website:

    Chairman Ron M. Linton: Failure to Haul
    My recent comment in a television interview citing economics as a reason for failure to haul was simply incorrect. The DC Taxicab Commission places the highest priority on eradicating this violation. The only explanation for not picking up a passenger is if a taxi driver fears harm which is an extremely high standard to meet. However, the fundamental point for the public to understand is that failure to haul is unacceptable. The Commission is committed to ensuring that taxi drivers realize they are offering a public accommodation and all people have a right to use it. I reject any suggestion of racism in my intent. My over 50 years of service in the local community working with diverse people speaks volumes to the type of person that I am.

  • This is a hoot from an incompetent! Stupid people are always trying to remove ‘foot from mouth’ when those same stupid people thought that the customer (public) was asleep or as stupid as they are. I would not state the Chairman is a racist but he is certainly stupid to facts and evidence as presented and probably should be removed since he is unable to discern evidence of violations by DC cab drivers that have been going on for at least 25 of his 50 years of supposed service. His answers/non-actions dictate that his service is more like one year of service/(experience) repeated 50 times.

    This is the response from the DCTC Chair on the DCTC website:

    Chairman Ron M. Linton: Failure to Haul
    My recent comment in a television interview citing economics as a reason for failure to haul was simply incorrect. The DC Taxicab Commission places the highest priority on eradicating this violation. The only explanation for not picking up a passenger is if a taxi driver fears harm which is an extremely high standard to meet. However, the fundamental point for the public to understand is that failure to haul is unacceptable. The Commission is committed to ensuring that taxi drivers realize they are offering a public accommodation and all people have a right to use it. I reject any suggestion of racism in my intent. My over 50 years of service in the local community working with diverse people speaks volumes to the type of person that I am.

  • There needs to be a well-planned, well-executed SECRET sting operation to prove this happens. Not that DCTC is capable of that. ACLU?

    • local news stations do this every few years. same results. the white guy gets picked up at a far higher percentage than the black guy.

    • I don’t think anyone is really saying it doesn’t happen. The issue is WHY it happens and that is much much much harder to “prove”. A sting isn’t a bad idea, but only if they can penalize the offenders; if they’re just telling us that it happens that’s not a whole lot of added value IMO.

  • Many cabbies are black or of African descent so they might be racist but against themselves? Many friends of mine who are white and various ethnic groups have had continuous problems securing cabs on the street. I don’t doubt there is an element of avoiding black customers but overall many of the cabbies do this to everyone on a regular basis. Of major US cities the DC taxi system is among the worst

  • + 1,000 to using UberX! On top of being cheaper, the cars are clean, the drivers are nice (because you rate them and they can be fired if they get too many negative reviews), it’s a cash-less transaction, and the driver picks you up (no standing in the cold trying to hail a cab). I’m a white woman who has never had trouble hailing a cab, but who has endured a number of sexist, sexually inappropriate, and down right terrifying comments from male cab drivers. I will NEVER take a cab in DC again, thank you UberX. (Uber is very nice as well, but too pricey for everyday quick rides).

  • I call BS on the “no white people ever get passed by” thing. I’m a nice-looking clean cut white guy, and just two days ago had six cabs pass me by without stopping while I was trying to get a ride downtown from Shaw at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Still light out – easy to see me waving my arm on the side of the road. And with the nifty new dome lights that very clearly say “taxi for hire” if the driver is on duty and the meter isn’t on, it’s easy to tell from a block away if it’s an on-duty vacant cab. I’m not at all saying black people don’t have more trouble than white people getting cabs, but to say “zero pass by white customers” is laughable.

  • Consider: the vast majority of cab drivers seem to be so-called “people of color” — i.e., East Africans, West Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs from various middle eastern or North African countries. It is foolish to try to see the current situation through the facile lens of white-black race relations.

    Why do so many East African immigrants — African Americans, if words have meaning — refuse to stop for black american males? Maybe there is some element of economics, as others have noted, but the elephant in the room is that it is self-preservation. In a city where virtually all violent crime is committed by young American born black boys/men, can you blame them?

    • Yes, I can blame them. I’m non violent but I still can’t get a cab. There’s no changing that I’m black. And I have no more control over the “violent young American born black boys/men” than you do.

  • I’m so bummed that I missed this post. I have been dealing and speaking about this since the mid-90s when I was at Howard. Now that I do alright for myself, nothing has changed. If I could tell you all the stories – being ignored, denied, lied to, kicked out, told to get out somewhere other than my location, me having to call the police who did nothing but tell me to get in another cab and let the guy leave. The stories go on and on…very sad.

    Yes and many of you are confusing a lot of the terms when it comes to ethnicity. I agree that many used the term black for everything other than white which moves the conversation in another direction it should not go.

    Lastly to the economics point of the conversation, I have heard every reasoning there is, many of which have been posted here and some that haven’t but the only one that can possibly make sense is that they want to pick up a group over one person. That is the only thing that you can tell prior to picking up the fare so anything outside of that is prejudging. With that said, I dress very well and normally wear a lot of suits and still would get denied and such constantly.

  • Have had to help black friends hail taxis numerous times. This has been the reality for a long time.

    An investigation and solution is needed, but I can’t help but cynically conclude that this is just noise during mayoral election season that will go away once we elect the next mayor.

  • I feel much concerned how issues like this is handled. When we talk about discrimination agenst young black American being passed by taxi when they hail for one. One question I want to ask those taking this serious is ,do this young one due to their colour have the privilege by law not to pay taxi fares cause majority of them will either not pay correct fare,run out of the car at their destination or rob the cab driver on gun point .if you want to know why drivers refuse to take them.check Police reports of or ask drivers or some one should driver a cab day and night for one week. The person will know why things are the way it is rather than concluding on racism and discrimination.

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