Missing the bus
History points to trouble ahead for LA’s increasingly separate and unequal mass transit system (Second of two parts)
By Kevin Uhrich 05/03/2012
Today, political progressives are fighting a war on what many unfamiliar with America’s various struggles for equality may not even realize is a raging civil rights battleground: mass transit.
But this fight didn’t begin with the Bus Riders Union and the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which, with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and fellow plaintiffs with the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates and Southern Christian Leadership Council, successfully sued the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 1994 over what they argued was a form of “transit racism” — disproportionate amounts of public money dedicated to building evermore expensive light-rail line systems serving largely white, affluent communities over satisfying the needs of bus riders, the system’s preponderant customer base, comprised mainly of working and working poor people of color.
And, if recent word of a federal probe into the MTA’s plans to build even more expensive light-rail lines while cutting bus service by hundreds of thousands hours — all as LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also chairs the MTA board of directors, tries to convince voters to indefinitely extend Measure R, a half-percent sales tax expected to raise $40 billion for transit projects over the next 26 years — it likely won’t end there, either.
The truth is discrimination — personal, social and institutional — is nothing new in the American public travel experience. Over much of the last century, and nearly all of the one before that, public and private transit operations have routinely discriminated against African Americans, immigrants and poor whites in virtually every state. Given the fact that many of our attitudes about race and class have come to be molded and continue to be influenced by issues originating in the field of mass transit, it shouldn’t be surprising that race and class bias would continue influencing the administration of modern community transportation systems, like the MTA.
To better understand where we stand in terms of public passenger parity in the world of modern mass transit, it might be helpful to know something about the US Supreme Court case that established the separate but equal doctrine, an inflexible and nearly universally accepted social code that mandated separation of blacks and whites throughout much of the 20th century: Plessy v. Ferguson.
Back in the 1880s and ’90s, long before the Nazis wrote their own blood-drenched chapters on eugenics and racial superiority, most Southern states had pseudo-scientific formulas of their own to gauge the degree of a person’s blackness. In one state, one-quarter African blood did the trick; in another, half was the equation. In Louisiana at the time, the line was drawn at one-eighth black blood.
In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy, who was one-eighth black, tried to break the transportation color barrier by boarding a “whites only” train car and was promptly arrested. Plessy, who was remarkably light-skinned and easily passed for white, was found guilty and later appealed the ruling. When that was denied, the state Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, and the stage was set for the US Supreme Court to hear the case and decide once and for all on the legality of the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine.
Writing for the majority, Justice Henry Billings Brown, who was born in Massachusetts — a Northern state that allowed segregation of schools well before the Civil War — wrote that certainly racial differences were at play in this case. But, according to the book “Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History with Documents,” edited by Brook Thomas, “As long as facilities were equal they were not prejudicial,” the justice said. Clearly, Brown saw no inequality or inferiority implied in being separate, or apparently in the shameful conditions that one side of this lopsided legal equation was forced to endure.
“If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals,” Brown opined.
Some leading African-American figures of the time shared Brown’s racial attitudes. “In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house,” author and teacher Booker T. Washington declared in a prophetically self-fulfilling speech delivered at the Atlanta Exposition in September 1895, about eight months before the Plessy decision was rendered.
Others, however, had dramatically different opinions. W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard, was one of many. Du Bois helped form the Niagara Movement, which in 1909 grew into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a group which would ultimately play a pivotal role in desegregating schools, the armed services, sports and all other aspects of everyday life, including mass transit. Remember, it was the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund that filed suit against the MTA in 1994, as it was the NAACP, under the legal leadership of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that filed the case against the Topeka, Kan., school board in the famous Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 desegregated public schools. For most of his long life, Du Bois, who died at age 95 in 1963, argued for equal rights and immediate suffrage for black men, advocating what he called “ceaseless agitation and insistent demand for equality.”
For Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenting voice in the Plessy case, the decision was no less harmful, no less “pernicious,” than that of the Dred Scott case in 1857, which affirmed slavery and led to the Civil War. For the Kentucky-born Harlan, a former slave owner, this case presented an opportunity for the country to prove, at this critical point, why — 30 years after the Civil War — justice could and should be color blind. “Sixty million whites are in no danger from the presence of eight millions of blacks,” the justice wrote. But more importantly, “The destinies of the two races in this country are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law.”
Justice Brown, again speaking for the majority and using what Harlan criticized as “ingenious verbal criticism” to interpret the 14th Amendment as a states’ rights question — and in every way other than civil rights for African Americans — explained that the post-war amendment was “undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law.” But, Brown wrote, “It could not legislate the abolition of all distinctions. Laws requiring the separation of the races simply reflected the culture of the people and as long as facilities were equal they were not prejudicial.”
The ultimate fallacy in all these race-based equations, of course, was that accommodations for “coloreds” were far from equal to the services and treatment that whites received, much as in today’s world riding on a smelly, beat up old bus would not be considered “equal” to riding for the same price in a sleek, shiny and clean train. That’s because, while somewhat resigned to emancipation and the economic freedom afforded freed slaves through the 13th Amendment, and the political right to vote proffered through the 15th Amendment, white Southerners simply could not tolerate being forced to co-mingle socially with African Americans, as the 14th Amendment has in modern times been determined to mandate.
Harlan clearly foresaw that this decision would lead to a pattern of dangerous behavior in other areas of society, which would undermine a basic sense of justice toward African Americans, writes Yale history Professor Karen Wolff in “Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education: The Supreme Court Rules on School Desegregation.” And the old man was right. Less than 10 years after the Plessy ruling, African Americans launched boycotts to protest segregated streetcars in Mississippi, and between 1900 and 1906, blacks in 25 Southern cities campaigned in some way against streetcar segregation.
The “separate but equal” doctrine, the “law of the land,” was fully enforced by most private train and coach companies, and later publicly owned transit agencies, until the 1960s, after such segregationist policies and practices were first deemed repugnant to the Constitution by the Brown ruling and later outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But these exclusionary practices in the first part of the last century didn’t really disappear. Far from it. They simply transformed into less noticeable but no less harmful behaviors on the part of public officials elected and appointed to operate public train and bus services.
BRU v. MTA
Rosa Parks was exhausted. This 42-year-old granddaughter of former slaves had been working all day at the Montgomery Fair department store in Montgomery Ala., and she was tired of waiting for a ride home. So when the bus finally arrived on Dec. 1, 1955, Parks, who along with her husband had been a member of the NAACP for nearly a decade, took a seat in the front of the bus, a space reserved for whites. When she refused to give it up to a white person, Parks — like Homer Plessy 63 years before her — was arrested, providing the spark that lit the fuse of a re-emerging and much more demanding civil rights movement. Parks’ arrest launched an economically crippling boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, which led to even more acts of defiance in the growing civil rights movements developing in major cities throughout America.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired. The only tired I was was tired of giving in,” Parks, who died at age 92 in 2005, was quoted saying.
After 382 days of boycotting by some 40,000 regular bus riders, in June 1956, the state’s segregationist law was repealed and the by-now nearly bankrupt Montgomery transit authority relented, ending its practice of racial discrimination. As a result, this combination of legal and civic action proved to be “one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history,” Parks later wrote on her Web site.
While revolution was occurring in other parts of the country, different changes were happening on the Southern California mass transit scene with the advent of the interstate highway and freeways. During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the automobile would deliver a death blow to clean, cheap and efficient mass transit that was well ahead of its time and is still sought after to this day: trolleys.
A group of investors that included Collis Huntington, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and his nephew, Henry Huntington, took control of the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway in 1889. By 1901, Henry Huntington started the Pacific Electric Railroad, also known as the Red Car, eventually opening lines from Pasadena to Los Angeles, then from LA to the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach, and later from downtown to San Bernardino, Santa Ana and San Pedro. But then, as cars flooded the region, train systems were phased out as more roads were built and more motorized buses were put into service. All the while, the defense-industry rich city and county of Los Angeles grew exponentially during and after World War II — many of those recent arrivals dependent on mass transit. In 1953, Pacific Electric was sold to Metropolitan Coach Lines, which converted all rail lines to bus service. Trolley service finally ended completely on April 8, 1961.
For much of the ensuing decades, buses, the dominant mode of public transportation, would be under the purview of the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD), which was formed in 1964 and in 1993 merged with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to become the 9,200-employee LA County MTA, the third-largest public transportation system in the United States.
As BRU organizer Geoff Ray explained, the seeds of the lawsuit against the MTA were planted after BRU members and organizers “rode thousands of buses for thousands of hours and began to build what has become a dues-paying membership of 2,500 persons and a very active leadership core of 200 riders” in 1992. The Bus Riders Union, Ray wrote, was organized by the Strategy Center, under the tutelage of longtime labor advocate Eric Mann, to help people resist corporate power and corporate-dominated government agencies. And in his not unbiased opinion, “the BRU has literally saved public transportation in Los Angeles,” Ray wrote.
In 1996, Ray states the MTA’s bus fleet consisted of less than 2,100 vehicles, almost all of them diesel-powered. “More than half of the buses were totally dilapidated, many with more than 500,000 miles and ages of 14 to 20 years. Many did not run at all, and those that did run broke down. As a result, people were chronically late to work, school and medical services. Through the BRU’s legal advocacy and grassroots organizing, the MTA agreed to dramatic improvements in the bus system, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in bus improvements for low-income transit dependent riders.”
These victories, Ray writes, included reducing the monthly bus pass to $42 a month, from $49, and creating the first $11 weekly bus pass. “Consequently, bus pass use has increased and low-income riders save tens of millions of dollars each year.” Since 1996, Ray writes, dilapidated diesel buses had been replaced with compressed natural gas buses, expanding the bus fleet by more than 300, from 2,100 to more than 2,400 vehicles, “and Rapid Bus lines have dramatically reduced transit times on major surface streets,” Ray wrote.
“Our long-term objective is to use these victories to help rebuild a national and international movement led by the working-class, communities of color, and women, whose enemy is the corporate system that, by definition, prioritizes profit maximization, deregulation, exploitation and repression over civil rights, environmental justice, and human need,” he wrote.
End of the line?
In an Oct. 19, 2010, letter to David Meiger of the MTA, Esperanza Martinez and Barbara Lott-Holland of the BRU expressed opposition to the agency’s latest plans to expand the Purple Line subway service to the city’s West Side. In its place, they wanted a “robust revision” of the Transportation System Management (TSM) Alternative. Their revision would redirect substantial funds for the West Side Subway to expand the bus system, increase Rapid and Local service on the Wilshire Corridor, and many other corridors countywide, plus lower fares and bus-only lanes.”
In their opinion, spending between $4 billion and $7 billion on a single rail project, which tops LA Mayor Villaraigosa’s mass transit wish list, could constitute a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, because of “the potential disparate impact on hundreds of thousands of low-income people of color who ride the bus as the sole or primary means of transportation.” Moreover, the letter continues, “We are also concerned that Metro may have failed to meet its obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] to sufficiently consider alternatives — namely a much more robust investment in bus expansion, fare reductions, and bus-only lanes — with a much less severe environmental impact.”
But the pleas of the BRU fell on deaf ears at the MTA. With only MTA Board member and county Supervisor Michael Antonovich voting no, and Board member and county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining, the MTA board voted 11-1 last Thursday to approve the Final Environmental Impact Statement/Report (FEIS/R) for the proposed extension of the Purple Line, the “Subway to the Sea,” as it’s called.
The board also approved the route and station locations for the first phase of the project, which, according to metro.net, will extend the current Purple Line subway for 3.9 miles under Wilshire Boulevard from its current terminus at Western Avenue. The stations, according to the agency, will be at La Brea and Fairfax avenues and La Cienega Boulevard.
BRU members contend that project is being made possible, in part, with money saved by slashing more than half-a-million more hours of bus service from the agency’s 2012 budget, eliminating some bus lines entirely and reducing bus service overall by 4 percent.
“There’s a dozen or so lines eliminated, plus 70,000 hours proposed that don’t even get told to the public, such as invisible cuts until on July 1, you get to your stop and find the 550 bus isn’t coming,” said Sunyoung Yang, a BRU organizer, told Pasadena Weekly reporter Carl Kozlowski back in July.
Last week, Yang said the Bus Riders Union (along with a number of cities around the county) opposed Measure R in 2008, calling it a regressive tax, one that ultimately disproportionately impacts poor people. And the BRU is against Villaraigosa’s latest call for an indefinite extension of the tax, which he says is necessary to borrow $8 billion to complete the lengthy list of rail projects upon which he wishes to hang his hoped-for legacy as LA’s “Transportation Mayor.”
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) chief Peter Rogoff issued a letter to MTA officials in which he threatened future federal funding. He also comments on what he called “disturbing findings” of a civil rights probe into the agency’s policies and practices. Rogoff, according the newspaper, found that the MTA was “not compliant with FTA [civil rights] requirements.”
The FTA is asking the MTA to review funding decisions from 2009, 2010 and last June, during which time 650,000 hours of service were cut. The administrator instructed officials to restore or restructure services if “disparate impacts” are found, the Times reported.
All told, Yang said bus service has been cut by 941,000 hours since 2007. But, she noted, there has never been a shortage of money or attention paid by local officials to the MTA’s proposed rail lines. “The most egregious part is we’ve seen since the early 1990s that the money they have is never enough and those [rail] projects end up siphoning money from the buses,” she said.
Considering all the cases since Plessy in which both society and the courts have come down on the side of average people struggling to make ends meet on low-wage incomes — in this case, the intersection at which public need and corporate greed collide with the Constitution — the future of mass transit in LA appears to boil down to a number of “ifs.”
If the gap between rich and poor continues widening, and if transit equity and human rights organizations continue coalescing and fighting on behalf of transit-dependent people, and if the MTA remains in its present politically driven administrative and bureaucratic state, and if the MTA continues devoting vast amounts of public money to building new transit systems over older, more widely used bus systems for its primary customers, the question of whether yet another civil rights lawsuit against the MTA is in the region’s near future appears to be a matter of when — not if.
Special thanks to CSUN Professor Claude Willey.