Dear Liza, 


I’m a white New Yorker in her early 60s. I had to take a cab from Chelsea to the Upper West Side, and the driver was charming and helpful; we also had an engrossing conversation about his difficult working conditions. Then we reached my destination. As I was waiting for my change, a black woman—about 70, wearing an elegant gray coat and using a cane—
approached the cab. The expression on the driver’s face changed from warmth to disgust. The woman put her head near his window and asked: “Can you take me? I’m from South Carolina and going to Harlem to do some shopping.”


“No, I have a passenger,” he said.


“Oh, no, I’m just getting out,” I told the woman.


“No! My meter is broken. The cab is out of service.”


“You can take her,” I said. “Would you like me to pay for her?” The driver didn’t say anything. I got out, helped the woman in, and watched them ride off.


So here are my questions: First, I didn’t get his name or number, but if I had, should I have reported him to the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC)? Second, “I’ll pay for her”? I had no idea I was going to say that until the words popped out of my mouth, but what was that? Obviously, she could pay for herself. Afterward, I wondered: Was that my way of saying, “I don’t know her, but I’m standing with her”? Or was I saying: “I’m white, I’ve got money and authority, and you have to do what I say”?

—Uncertain Upstander


Dear Uncertain,

 

We are constantly exhorted in these Trump-
ravaged times to speak out against bigotry. This is not always easy to do in the moment, but you did your best! You had to tell a friendly new acquaintance how wrong he was, which is awkward and hard. But you’re right to query your impulsive offer to pay for the visitor; not only did the driver likely resent this move for the reasons you suggest, but the woman herself might have bristled. Since cab drivers sometimes refuse black passengers on the racist assumption that they won’t pay, your well-meaning gesture risked magnifying his insult. But coercing a person to make a little more money by not acting on his prejudices is not abusive. Yours was a decent use of privilege.

It’s good that you didn’t report the driver to the TLC. Such a complaint forces a driver into “taxi court,” a humiliating process that would cause this underpaid worker to lose hours of labor. The racism of some cab drivers toward black customers is best addressed not in such a punitive manner, but through organizing and dialogue, which the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, a multiracial group of drivers fighting for better working conditions, has often found to be successful. Your intervention was better than a complaint to the TLC for the same reason that the NYTWA’s own antiracist work has been effective: Coming from someone who had shown him solidarity, your criticism of his action may have resonated.

Dear Liza,


I’m in my late 20s, working for a public-interest organization. When I first started here, my politics were in line with our mission, but over the past few years I’ve become more radical and find my organization is a mild reformer at best. For example, we have a campaign to “build wealth” for low- and moderate-income families by encouraging them to save money (as opposed to advocating for higher wages). This campaign is funded by Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Capital One, and so on. As a result, I’m struggling with my future at this organization. Do I continue to work here, or do I seek a job at a more radical organization (which are hard to find)?

—Radical Stuck in a Reformer Office

Dear Radical,

 

You’re going to find constraints on your radicalism at most nonprofits, which tend to be funded either through government grants or donations from rich people. Such donors, because of their class interests, don’t want you to do radical work—capitalism works just fine for them. As well, a 501(c)3 organization is legally hampered from participating in politics, whether by supporting candidates or engaging in substantial lobbying. All of this is by design: Nonprofits, while often staffed by people who wish to profoundly change the world, are set up specifically not to do that.

So your organization is never going to advance radical politics. But does your work provide a service that people need? Many nonprofits do: providing support for women fleeing domestic violence, helping new immigrants to learn English, and much else. However, some 501(c)3s peddle political agendas that can be damaging to serious organizing efforts: ideologies that blame poor people for their poverty, for instance. A friend who recently left a job as an executive director of a nonprofit suggests asking yourself: “Am I having a deleterious effect on the world?” If the answer is yes, then you should leave.

No one is going to pay you to be a revolutionary. But some radicals are lucky enough to work—usually for a pittance—for the tiny number of left organizations that can afford staff. Many more work for unions. That’s because, while most unions aren’t far-left organizations, there will probably be no effective left without a better labor movement, and unions are among the only interest groups funded by workers rather than the 1 percent.

For her part, my friend suggests separating your day job from your politics. A normal job exposes you to people outside your progressive bubble and could leave you with more time for organizing. Another option is to become an active union member in a trade or profession that pays a living wage and is itself worthwhile: nursing, construction, carpentry, teaching, or working as a librarian, to name a few.

Have a question? Ask Liza here.