WHEN I WAS a congressman back in the '70s, I was rid- ing in a cab on my way uptown and I saw a young black man attempting to hail a cab.
I said to the driver: "Look, they are not picking him up because he's black.
You would pick him up, wouldn't you?" "I would not," he replied.
I said: "I see by your name (on his license) that you are Jewish. After all the discrimination we suffered, how can you say you wouldn't pick him up?" He stopped the cab with a jolt, turned towards me, and said: "With my rear end, you want to be a nice guy?" That story came tumbling out of my memory last week when Danny Glover made public his complaint that he and his family had been passed by when hailing cabs.
At one point, driving a taxi in the City of New York was a very dangerous profession. For several years, being a cab driver was more dangerous than being a police officer.
Nevertheless, refusing service on the basis of race is not only illegal; it is immoral, totally unacceptable and must be stopped. Cab drivers are licensed and possess medallions for which the city charged $ 100 when first issued.
According to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the current value of an individual medallion is about $ 220,000. The taxi industry is a monopoly. By law, additional medallions cannot be issued.
To his credit, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani responded immediately to Glover's poignant complaint. But, in his usual pugnacious style, Giuliani took his response too far-including not only the deployment of minority undercover cops to hail cabs to determine if the drivers would deliberately pass them but, also the threat of confiscating the cab of any driver who did.
Asked about the legal justification for the decision to confiscate the cabs, Giuliani responded that the "city is perfectly entitled to do this." Danny Glover, to his great credit, criticized the mayor's solution because it victimized cab drivers without attacking the underlying racism.
The number of crimes committed against taxi drivers is way down. For example, the number of documented robberies committed against taxi drivers has plummeted from 972 in 1991 to 197 in 1998. And, based on the current projections, this year's total will be 176.
The number of taxi drivers murdered in the city has also fallen sharply. In 1988, there were 18 yellow medallion cabbies murdered. Since 1991, only one cabbie has been killed. One too many; nevertheless, a dramatic reduction.
Based on these statistics, being a taxi driver can no longer be described as an especially dangerous profession. But, even if it were, cab drivers are part of a strictly regulated transit industry and do not have the right to discriminate on the basis of race, nor should they.
The appropriate remedies should include escalating fines, suspension of licenses and, if all else fails, jail time. The jail time might be equivalent to that imposed for prostitution - 15 days. Danny Glover persuasively advocates education and training for all drivers, including the old timers.
We are living with the curse of racism. And, while it would be most helpful if individuals policed themselves in a concerted effort to eliminate the lack of respect on the basis of race that pervades our society, government has an obligation to enforce the law. Martin Luther King Jr. said we do not have to love each other, but we must respect each other's rights.
Having said all that, this past Sunday I took a cab to LaGuardia. On the way, I spoke to the driver, a young black man, originally from Ghana but a U.S.citizen for 14 years.
He complained bitterly about Giuliani's crackdown, saying: "Mayor, I am a black man, and have been a taxi driver for three years. I often don't pick up blacks on the street because many don't pay when I take them to Harlem." He then described picking up a black woman at Houston Street going to Coop City in the Bronx, where she ran from the cab, leaving him with an unpaid $ 30 fare. He said that in three years this had happened many more than 10 times. I asked if he had ever been held up. He said no. His story had the ring of truth.
No matter, if you can't abide by the law, get out of the business. Yes, life is unfair.