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Racial undercurrents inflame Uber fight over background checks

Racial undercurrents inflame Uber fight over background checks

Uber is at the center of a fight over background checks that critics charge could lead to discrimination against black and Hispanic men.

The popular ride-hailing application, a favorite in political circles, says that it should not be required to do fingerprint-based background checks for its drivers, contending it would discriminate against people of color.

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Uber’s position has support from the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderOne quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors First redistricting lawsuits filed by Democratic group On The Trail: Census data kicks off the biggest redistricting fight in American history MORE, whose law firm counts Uber as a client and who weighed in with a letter this month.

Critics, including the taxi industry, argue Uber should be required to do the background checks to make sure the passengers employing its drivers for rides are taken safely to their destinations.  

They also question why their drivers need to be fingerprinted when Uber drivers can hit the road without going through that process. 

Politicians love to tout Uber as a symbol of innovation, where riders are connected to drivers through a smartphone app that hails nearby drivers who work as independent contractors. 

Though the requirements vary from city to city and state to state, a 2015 description from Uber in California outlines that a screening company checks would-be drivers using their names, birth dates, Social Security numbers and information about their driver and vehicle registration.

But critical public officials and the taxi industry, which has been fighting Uber since it was founded, say that the name-based background checks simply aren’t thorough enough. 

They are pushing for Uber to instead require drivers to be fingerprinted and those fingerprints to be run through a Federal Bureau of Investigation database that contains information on arrests. 

Critics, however, have long contended that the database is flawed because arrest records often don’t contain information on the final outcome of a case — such as whether charges were dropped — and are sometimes inaccurate. 

Because people of color — particularly men — are more likely to be arrested, critics say they are also more likely to face problems stemming from incomplete or inaccurate records surfacing during the employment process.

“Requiring fingerprint-based background checks for non-law enforcement purposes can have a discriminatory impact on communities of color,” Holder wrote in letters to local officials in Chicago, Atlanta and New Jersey.

Brandi Collins, the media justice director at civil rights group ColorOfChangeagrees with Holder's argument that the fingerprint database could lead to discrimination.

“Black people are disproportionately targeted and arrested, so they’re fingerprinted at a higher level. Because of the fact that the arrest records don’t ever specify whether the person arrested was found guilty [or] innocent or whether those charges were dropped, once the fingerprints are filed they just become this damning piece of evidence that’s often used in a number of ways.” 

“One of the biggest is to essentially create prejudice for people in their job searches by companies accessing these incomplete and faulty records and then making decisions whether or not to hire people based on that information.” 

Uber, along with ride-hailing company rival Lyft and major privacy and civil rights groups, also criticize an FBI request to restrict access to the information the public has about what records might be kept on them in the database — leaving the public in the dark aas to what information the government is keeping on them.

“According to a recent investigation, every year, thousands of people undergoing fingerprint-based background checks lose work due to FBI records that are inaccurate or out of date,” the companies and organizations wrote in a joint letter to the Department of Justice.

Holder also said it would be unfair to use fingerprinting checks during someone's job search.

“The FBI database has a clearly-defined purpose: to aid law enforcement during Investigations,” he said. “It was not designed to be used to determine whether or not someone is eligible for a work opportunity.” 

That argument has support from at least one powerful lawmaker on Capitol Hill.

“This is a second job for many good men and women, and that would be an insult to a part-time driver,” said G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldThe Memo: How liberal will the Biden presidency be? Democrats vow to go 'bold' — with or without GOP CBC 'unequivocally' endorses Shalanda Young for White House budget chief MORE (D-N.C.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who says he opposes fingerprint background checks for employment in almost all cases.

Uber prefers to use name-based background checks in nearly every market through a company called Checkr. Uber says that the company will go to the courthouse to check possible criminal records which it says “helps ensure that we are checking the most up-to-date records.”

The company conceded in the blog post that “when it comes to screening, every system has its flaws," since “past behavior may not accurately predict how people will behave in the future, but also due to the fact that no system in the U.S has a one hundred percent accurate record of the past.” 

That hasn’t stopped officials around the country from calling for Uber to submit to the tougher background checks. At the moment, they’re facing potential mandates for fingerprint checks in Atlanta, Chicago and New Jersey. 

Both Uber and Lyft left Austin, Texas, last month when voters chose not to reject a city council regulation requiring the background checks. The companies spent millions of dollars to try to sway the electorate in the debate. 

But the taxi industry is not backing down. 

For more than two years, a top taxi and limousine drivers union has run a website that tracks incidents involving Uber and Lyft drivers and making the case that, among other things, the companies need to comply with stronger background checks.

The initiative’s name is simple, but ominous: “Who’s Driving You?”