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Does Race matter when giving up your seat to someone on public transit?

Byron A. Nicholas, AICP - July 28, 2018



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The City of New York is known for its diversity by socio-economic status, age and of course race. One can find a myriad of different dialects, accents and languages during the duration of a single subway ride. Much of the city’s recent population boom and increase in mixed neighborhood demographics can be attributed to the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning policy that has spurred housing development in low income minority neighborhoods. This mixture of people now contributes to unique encounters between different races, particularly Black and White, in public spaces including public transit. As a daily workday commuter, conscious of the racial climate throughout the country and the cultural changes in New York, I constantly ask myself “are people of color, particularly African Americans, treated differently when it comes to comfort and courtesy on the city's buses and trains?” Let us take a look to see how mainstream stereotypes affect the way African Americans are perceived on the city's mass transit system and how greater cultural acceptance can be achieved for all cultures within NYC’s public transit system.

During my workday commute on the E train in Queens, I frequently ponder how other African-American commuters are perceived by White commuters. I also wonder if other African-Americans are as race-conscious as I am on the City’s bus and trains. For example, am I perceived to be a robber or thug depending on my clothes because I fit a depiction created and perpetuated by corporate news media? African Americans are constantly prejudged in various places including school and work, as the hit HBO TV series Insecure portrays, but often too, we are branded by strangers in public settings. This may suggest underlying micro-aggressions leading to feelings of insecurity, inferiority and inadequacy. In the article, Racial Micro-aggressions in Everyday Life, the writers, Derald Wing Sue, Cristina M. Capodilupo, et al., explain that racial micro-aggressions are “subtle, stunning, often automatic, non-verbal, exchanges which are ‘put downs.’ The article continues to explain racial micro-aggressions as “subtle insults, verbal/non-verbal, and/or visual directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.” Therefore, the snubs, tightly clutched handbags, dismissive looks, shifty eyes, and gestures are usually dismissed as normal behavior by White commuters, but can be harmful to the victims which are usually people of color.

Upon observation, depending on circumstances, it seems as though some African Americans may constantly try to uphold their existence as a person of color in the presence of White commuters while others may engage in feelings of inferiority to compromise their comfort for that of white commuters.  

The Perception of Crime and its Effects on Black Commuters

In my opinion, there is no doubt that the media's perception of young black individuals plays a role in the generalization of young African Americans on public transportation. The deaths of Tamir Rice (12) and Michael Brown (18) are examples of how police officers react in fear when encountering African American children.  The American media portrays little boys and girls of color as hyper aggressive.  This perception perpetuates the idea that African-American boys and girls are more violent and more mature for their age than their white counterparts. The critically acclaimed Netflix documentary "13th" directed by Ava DuVernay does a brilliant job explaining the chronological events of how African-Americans, particularly black men were perceived as ultra-sexual, aggressive and dangerous from the antebellum years to contemporary time.

The greatest example of this is the story of Emmitt Till, a 14 year old African-American boy, murdered in 1955 in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a White woman, although decades later Carolyn confessed that her testimony was fabricated.  We all hear about people of color followed by store clerks and law enforcement, and many stories of women clutching their handbags when around African Americans on city trains and buses.  If this is due to crime rates in African-American communities it does not give one the right to generalize and prejudge a person based on statistics about an entire race. Unfortunately, this generalization comes with consequences on public transit systems where a white person may have a racial preference when choosing to sit next to African Americans or in extreme cases White commuters’ faces filled with disgust for sitting in proximity to some African American commuters, or in extreme cases.


Man Walking Down Stairs.jpg

Commuters on a NYC train during rush hour. Courtesy of Aldon Photos


Does Race matter when giving up your seat to someone on public transit?

New Yorkers rely on the city's vast public transit system not only to commute to  school or work, but as an alternative for drunk driving, and to run daily errands, especially for mothers who may need to transport their kids to and from school, doctor visits or simply for leisure purposes such as trips to a park or a museum. I have seen White, African American and Latina women of all socio-economic backgrounds on the city's trains and buses. But are these women with their children treated differently based on their race/ethnicity? Do commuters perceive the health, welfare and safety of a white child to be more concerning than that of an African American child? The answer to this question based on my observations is yes; African American and Latina mothers and children seem to be less likely offered a seat than white mothers by their fellow commuters. Similarly, MIC News reported on a study by Portland State University and the University of Arizona, which has found that African-American pedestrians face worse treatment than White pedestrians, including 32% longer wait times by drivers while walking in crosswalks. This reverts back to the issue of subconscious racism.

I have also observed on many occasions that African Americans were quicker to give up their seats to white women and their children than to those of other minorities, almost as though the latter were an afterthought. It almost reminds me of "Driving Ms. Daisy", where some African-Americans have been programmed to provide service to White Americans during the country’s Jim Crow era.  This erroneous stereotype feeds into other false stereotypes such as African Americans being genetically stronger than their white peers; further perpetuating the false perception that African American mothers and children are able to stand longer without discomfort.

Education and Awareness is Key!

Although federal regulations such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the American's with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) has tremendously aided the safety and welfare of public transit commuters throughout the country, education and awareness combatting racial prejudices is often left to American values. Prior to social media platforms, African Americans and other minority ethnic groups relied on a few mediums such as magazines and TV shows to affirm their culture and identity in society, particularly in public spaces. Now, Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter allow platforms for people of color to help eliminate the stereotypes and the double consciousness that may contribute to minority’s discomfort in public spaces including public transit.

NYC's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has lead a strong gender neutral campaign and can do the same for racial tolerance.  Here is where the MTA’s Diversity Committee and the State of New York have the opportunity to promote racial and ethnic inclusiveness and acceptance on transit by celebrating the cultural diversity of passengers through advertisements and announcements. An MTA educational campaign has the potential to inform patrons that it's okay to look different while riding public transit with the goal to reduce racially induced biases and prejudices. Click here to leave a comment on MTA's Customer Support Team application to hold the agency accountable to increase ethnic inclusiveness. (In the MTA Service drop-down box click MTA Corporate Office -Suggestions- and Policies, Rules and Regulations.) Don't forget to leave a comment suggesting that the MTA make a racial and ethnic inclusive campaign comprised of announcements and advertisements for zero-tolerance of racial micro-aggressions and stereotypes, which has no place in our subways and society. 

If you live outside the New York City region you can lobby your local transit authority to enact similar diversity campaigns.

So the next time you ride alongside someone with differences in skin color, language, or religious wear - i.e, a hijab, a kippah, a kufi or a turban – just remember that you and them are just simple additions to the unique cultural fabric of New York City and/or the United States of America.