PROFESSIONAL baseball star Dave Winfield and his wife learned the hard way that, in Baltimore at least, they are among many blacks who futilely try to hail a cab, only to see it pick up whites a few yards down the street.
The Winfields claim they were so treated after an Orioles game against the Minnesota Twins last summer. They say they hailed a cab driver who told them he was off duty but then promptly picked up six whites. When the Winfields asked the driver about his conduct, they say, he and the other passengers laughed.
The charge has been hotly denied by the driver, who claims the Winfields didn't see or hear what they claim they saw and heard. No matter. Enough black Baltimoreans know that there is truth in the Winfields' charges.
My wife and I saw a similar incident on Fayette Street as we returned from a concert at Pier 6. I witnessed the same thing on Calvert Street about a month ago. In neither case was I the one trying to hail a taxi; I had already started my own boycott of Baltimore cab drivers, figuring that if they'd concluded they could make a living without black Baltimore's money, I was content to let them.
There are some cab drivers honest enough to admit what's going on. One, Robin Miller, has occasionally contributed pieces to this page. While giving me a lift home one night, he fessed up about why cab drivers pass up black customers. It has nothing to do with fear of crime, he said. It has more to do with fear of parsimoniousness. Blacks have a reputation for being poor tippers. White and black drivers routinely avoid them. Therefore, racism has nothing to do with it. Blacks, the reasoning goes, can't practice racism against other blacks.
But the reasoning has one flaw. Black cab drivers can practice racism against blacks. If you make a decision based on the assumption that all members of one race act the same, you've made a racist decision. It doesn't matter what color you are. Some of the most virulent white racist attitudes reside in black minds.
But life is not so simple that the problem can be confined to cab drivers of any race discriminating against African-Americans. The truth is, when it comes to getting taxi service, the city's black residents and visitors may not be getting the worst of it.
That fact was graphically illustrated when I was supervising a patient escort department at a local hospital. It was a job designed to turn a pacifist into a serial hatchet murderer, and one day it got particularly gruesome.
Patients being discharged could not be left alone. Someone from patient escort had to be with them. One busy day I decided to wait with a patient so that escorters would be free to take patients to the operating room and radiology departments. The gentleman I waited with was having his cab fare paid by social services and could barely move out of his wheelchair without assistance.
We waited five minutes for a cab. Then 10. We waited. And waited.
An hour passed, during which several calls were made but still no cab showed up. When one finally arrived, from a company that had a contract with the hospital to take patients with social work vouchers, the driver sized up the situation and refused to take the patient.
I was so livid that I wanted to remove the driver (who was black) physically and commandeer his cab, but further unpleasantness was avoided when another driver pulled up and agreed to take the patient (who was white).
A few months later an elderly black man in a wheelchair asked me to hail a cab for him. The few who troubled to stop decided they were too busy when they saw that their would-be passenger was in a chair.
Able-bodied white males grousing about affirmative action and political correctness should count their blessings. At least they can still get a cab.
Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.