Uber has agreed to a civil rights audit, but will the results lead to any social change?

May 10, 2022, 7:57 PM UTC

Yesterday the ride-share and delivery giant announced plans to launch a civil rights audit of their business. The announcement comes after extended negotiations with activist investors SOC Investment Group, As You Sow, and Friends Fiduciary—and followed a Sunday night email sent by Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi warning that cost-cutting and other austerity measures were also coming.

The Uber board’s Nominating and Governance Committee—which includes former Nestle EVP Wan Ling Martello and former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns—will be supervising the audit and are now responsible for hiring an independent auditor with a track record of racial justice work.

It’s a step toward accountability for a company that was once a poster child for tech sector hustle—along with accusations of racism and misogyny, and a steady stream of serious scandals and ethical lapses.

“The company has been riddled with civil rights concerns, including facing a lawsuit from the Justice Department for previously charging ‘wait time’ fees to passengers with disabilities, the glaring absence of Black and Hispanic employees in leadership positions, studies indicating racial discrimination built into Uber’s pricing algorithm, and concerns over how its rating system may be biased against drivers of color,” Tejal Patel, Corporate Governance Director at SOC Investment Group tells raceAhead, via email.

At press time, Uber had not responded to requests for comment.

Calls for a similar audit of Facebook’s practices—including an inability to stave off hate speech and calls for racist violence on the platform—was led by civil rights campaign organization Color of Change and began in earnest in 2017. The report, which was published in 2020 yielded mixed results, at best. But, argues Patel, it was a public document and a clear signal that companies will be held accountable. “[J]ust  last month we won a commitment from Apple to complete an audit after a successful shareholder campaign, and settlements have been reached after substantial shareholder votes in favor of independent audits at JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup.”

Will it make a dent? Is it a new era for Uber? Time will tell.

As You Sow, a non-profit shareholder advocacy firm that encourages environmental and corporate sustainability, challenged Uber’s commitment to anti-racist values in a carefully worded statement. “[We] valued the opportunity to engage with Uber based on their stated commitment of becoming an antiracist organization and their 46% score on our Racial Justice Scorecard,” said Racial Justice Initiative Manager, Olivia Knight of As You Sow, in a public statement.

The hope is that a rising tide of truth will lift all. “Uber’s willingness to share the audit results and continue to work on addressing any areas of concern will serve as an example and an incentive for other corporations to follow in their footsteps.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On point

When Black girls go missing  Kudos to USA Today and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for this investigative piece marking the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of Alexis Patterson, a Black seven-year-old you’ve likely never heard of. She vanished outside of her Milwaukee elementary school barely a month before Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom in Utah. This piece, which includes stark comparison of the national news coverage of the two cases has become the basis of a longer study into the racial disparities in law enforcement and media coverage when children of color go missing. They are asking for the public’s help with that important work; look for the longer investigation to publish sometime next year.
USA Today

Here are the 2022 Pulitzer Prize winners  While yours truly wasn’t on the list again, there were plenty of extraordinary journalists who were tapped for important work that brought the equity and justice conversation forward. That has not always been the case. Special shout out to Lisa Falkenberg, Michael Lindenberger, Joe Holley and Luis Carrasco of the Houston Chronicle for their original reporting that revealed voter suppression tactics and the myths that undermine voting equity; Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col, Josh Adams and Walt Hickey of Insider, New York City who used comic art to tell the story of the Uyghurs; and Maria Hinojosa and her colleagues at Futuro Media, also in NYC, and PRX, Boston, Mass, for Suave, a gripping podcast that followed the story of David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, and his attempt to rejoin life outside after being incarcerated for over 30 years.
Pulitzer Organization

On Background

The racist history of prom  We’ve already explored the racist history of swimming, square dancing, even tomatoes. But college proms, once short for promenade, were highly segregated affairs, originally designed to be a lower-rent version of the debutante balls for the elites, and an opportunity to introduce middle class young women to society (and potentially eligible husbands.) By the 1920s, the concept was extended to high school, and with it, the rigid social norms of gender-based behavior and white supremacy. After Brown v. Board of Education, proms became a battle ground for integration. Spoiler alert: It didn’t always work. Plenty of single race proms still exist, and Wilcox County High School in Abbeville, Georgia, held its first-ever integrated prom in 2013.

How income inequality causes psychological stress  It affects individuals and the nation as a whole, says social psychologist Keith Payne and author of The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. "We think about ourselves in terms of being on a certain rung with some people above us, and other people below us. Where we think we stand on that ladder tells you a lot about a person's life and their life outcomes," he says in this interview with NPR’s Hidden Brain. If you’re lower down, you might be miserable, but you also might be more motivated. Higher up might make you happier, but also more complacent. As a country, anxiety associated with inequality has been associated with high-risk behavior, political polarization, and homicide rates. Payne suggests a one-day-at-a-time approach to managing the psychological stress, and become “more mindful about the kinds of comparisons we are making on a daily basis.”  

The woman behind one of the world’s most famous pictures  Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph of a worried migrant mother became the most famous image of the Great Depression, yet for decades we knew nothing about the subject. (In fact, Lange never bothered to ask her name.) It turns out Florence Leona Christie was Cherokee, born to Cherokee parents displaced from their tribal lands in Oklahoma. By the time the photo was taken she had six young children and her husband had just died of tuberculosis. Click through for more, but this snippet of lost history was brought to my attention by her great-grandson, James Brady. “The children [in the picture] are my Aunt Ruby and Aunt Norma,” he tweeted in a fascinating thread. In other news, Brady writes about sports for SB Nation, and refused to use the Washington football team’s full name in his articles long before it was popular.

Parting Words

Well, whatever I missed in between, I just missed. I'm never going to catch up. It's impossible. But it was new to me because when I went in, I had a complete family. I had grandmother, grandfathers, aunt. When I came out, I had basically nobody. You know, it was scary because even though I went to college, I got my degrees, I educated myself, transformed myself, I never thought about living as a free man, as an adult. Everything I knew up to that point was as a child in prison.

David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, who entered the prison system at age 17

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