A Cautionary Tale of Race, Ethnicity and Distrust Within the Cycling Community

Background Reading


Activism often bring passionate people together in close proximity. In Portland it evidently is a mix that is not unlike that here in Chicago. This story begins with a report on the BikePortland blog (which has since been updated):

Note from the publisher, 6:14 pm: This story was originally posted described a situation wherein attendees at a ride on Sunday believed they were accompanied by a Portland Police officer named Chris Uehara. After seeing photos of the officer and learning other similarities, I posted a story describing the situation and included quotes from ride participants who believed the man to be Captain Uehara.

I have since heard from the Portland Police that the man on ride was not Capt. Uehara.

Jonathan Maus is a tireless one-man operation in Portland who like those bloggers here in Chicago relies largely on word-of-mouth from members in that community. Here in Chicago we not only have folks who are reporters, but we also have a forum (ChainLink) which often provides a record of that “word-of-mouth” exchange for all to see. Sometimes our threads contain clues to the participants feelings about their interactions with cyclists, motorist and pedestrians. Quite a bit of this reportage is filled with not only descriptions of the ethnicity and racial background of the folks in question, but often is tinged with epithets like “animals” to encourage the reader along in understanding how any good member of the Urban Church of Cycling is react in similar situations.

Jonathan evidently fell prey to two things: (a) laziness on his part in that he did not bother to confirm the validity of his sources and (b) allowing his biases or at least those of his readers to cloud his judgment in how he reported the situation. I suppose the subtitle to his original mea culpa should have been “They all look alike“. What is instructive here is that as with all this cultural people carry over what they have either learned at home or in interactions with others whose lives have taught them to be either hateful or mistrustful of those who do not share their ethnic or racial backgrounds and that is a volatile mixture.

But there is another far more pervasive problem when an activist community is based in a large urban venue like Chicago and that is social stratification. There is simply too much of a difference between the “haves” and “have-nots” to keep resentment out of the mix. And because society is itself either unwilling or unable to keep its racial rules out of the public arena, what results is that people of color, or immigrants are more often than not part of the “have-nots“. And that makes all the difference because it becomes easier to “identify” someone as social equal based on a simple examination of their skin color or their command of English.

Liberals Mistake Themselves As Being More Understanding Than Conservatives

Liberals believe themselves to be free of the bigotry of their Conservative counterparts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact you only have to read the pages of the ChainLink to understand the problem. But the verb “read” used here is not about scanning the eye over the words contained on a page. Rather it is about understanding the subtext that accompanies every thread reply. If you feel yourself to be part of the “haves” your reactions to the same words read by a member of the “have-nots” may be 180-degrees different.

In his follow-up piece where Jonathan actually meets the person about whom he thought he was writing he says:

On Friday I met Captain Chris Uehara of the Portland Police Bureau’s Youth Services Division. I won’t even attempt to recap why this meeting occurred; but suffice it to say, we didn’t come together for the best of reasons. That being said, we’re both glad that our paths have finally crossed.

Over the past week, I have been trying to understand why and how I made the mistake of publishing that story. Part of figuring that out has been to ask people that were either involved in the story (like Uehara) or who criticized me for it, how it made them feel. Capt. Uehara shared that he was a bit taken aback by the story because he felt the racial overtones surrounding it. We talked about that, and a lot more, during our conversation on Friday.

Capt. Uehara was born and raised in Hawaii (which he remembers as a huge melting pot of cultures and races where he got along with everyone). When he left the island and moved to Oregon, he was shocked when he was the subject of racial slurs and bigotry while in out in public. Those experiences have stayed with him and they formed the lens through which he read my story and its comments. As for my role in the story, Chris has been very understanding. “We’re good!” he kept saying, with his warm and engaging smile. I could tell he didn’t want me to beat myself up about it. I told him I was grateful for his understanding, but that I’m still working through it.

After we discussed the story, Capt. Uehara was eager to share the great work he’s been doing in our community. As Captain of the Youth Services Division, he and his officers handle a myriad of important issues — from runaways to school safety, domestic violence, and much more. (And as it turns out, Capt. Uehara is the officer who brokered the relationship withthat down-and-out bike thief who wrote an apology letter to his victim back in October 2012).

Now here is the one important fact about the story, it took place in Portland. If you have ever watched the series Portlandia you will know that this fact alone is like saying you came across a skin head group of Neo-Nazis whose grandparents were all survivors of the Auschwitz. But that is exactly what happens here in Chicago. We pride ourselves in being colorblind but we are not. We use loaded terms like “shitholes” to describe the communities in which the “have-nots” live and where the greatest concentration of criminal violence is situated. And we do this with the utter straightforwardness of a Nazi-sympathizer in Germany as he might have described the Jewish Ghetto.

Neither person a modern day ChainLinker or a Hitler supporter in World War II would feel the slightest bit of guilt over their characterizations of the “have-nots“. This is the nature of how society shapes us without our even being aware of it. The term “Dirty Jew” is qualitatively no different than “animals” or “Section-8ers” when one is able to step outside of the context of the cultures in which they are used. And we reinforce our bigotries on a daily basis here in Chicago when we reinvent ways to spread in causal conversation on the ChainLink.

Jonathan Learns From His Mistakes, But Will Gabe?

I could not help but admire the strength of character it took for Jonathan to have written the following:

I’m not even sure where to begin about what happened yesterday.

First, I want to say that I am deeply sorry for jumping the gun and choosing to publish that story prematurely. The impact of my actions have proven to be far greater than anything I intended. I got caught up in the story. As I was working on it I thought I was doing the right thing. But now it’s obvious that I wasn’t. I messed up and my mistake hurt the people involved and it has caused a lot of concern and anger from many people in the community.

Yesterday, caught up in the storm of the situation, I defended my story and my actions against what I thought were unfair and uninformed criticisms. That defense only added to the storm. As an extremely confident person, especially when it comes to BikePortland (if I wasn’t, the site would not be what it is today), regular readers know that I often go to great lengths to defend my reporting and my editorial decisions. That’s what I did yesterday before I fully realized the consequences of my initial mistake.

Part of that realization came when I got a call from someone at the Portland Police Bureau whom I respect and whom I’ve worked with on several occasions over the years. That person, who now works alongside Chief Reese, was disappointed that I didn’t call him first and ask about the allegations. He also said that Capt. Chris Uehara, the person my story presented as the alleged cop, was hurt by what happened. After that call, I wrote to Capt. Uehara and expressed my sincere apologies.

Moving forward, there are two major pieces of the fallout from my actions that I want to specifically address: 1) How can you be confident in my work in the future and how can I assure you this will never happen? and 2) What is my response to the racial component of the story.

First, anyone who knows me (either personally or through this site or both), knows that I am constantly checking my gut, that I am open and accepting of criticism, and that I am constantly learning how to this job better. I can assure you that this experience has left an indelible impression on me. It’s a stinging reminder that I must never forget the immense responsibility I have.

As to the racial component of this story, that is something that never crossed my mind until others (rather immediately) pointed it out. Why would the racial component be so apparent to others when I myself, staring at it in the eye, didn’t think about it at all? Am I racist (as some people allege) because I wasn’t sensitive enough to handle the story differently based solely on the fact that the two men were of Asian descent?

I am still struggling with those questions. I think the answer to the first one is the concept white privilege. I acknowledge that is a factor. As a white male — and especially as a white male advocacy journalist with deep ties to the community — I need to do a better job being proactively aware and sensitive to race. That is difficult for someone like me who was raised to be color-blind (that was the central tenet of “multi-culturism,” a strong theme in the curriculum of my southern California primary and middles school). I have to re-train myself to see race and to understand its role in shaping our city and the issues I cover*. I know from my experience during the North Williams Avenue project that race is not an easy topic to engage in; but I am open to the challenge.

I know this post does not address every issue this story has brought to light; but I hope my thoughts are helpful.

As always, I’m open to your feedback…

P.S. You might be interested to read more thoughts on the story by Jess Hadden, who was on the Veloprovo ride.

How Would Chicago’s ChainLinkers Respond?

Chicago wears its bigotries on its sleeve with pride. We are more like Boston in that regard. We are full of ethnic enclaves and quite proud of them. Under the circumstances I doubt seriously whether we will ever find ourselves attempting to bridge the gaps in our understandings. That is not in our natures. We have a subtext that is not unlike that of the NCIS characters Jethro Gibbs, “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness“. And we back that up with our responses on ChainLink every single day.

But when we are confronted with issues like where to route Critical Mass rides the problem surfaces and we have to stare our hatred, bigotries and fears in the face. What is often quite telling is the fear of one another that we expose when asking questions about whether or not a Critical Mass Ride should even be held on the South Side.

But the situation gets very ugly when people are being interviewed about a setback on the South Side where protected bike lanes are concerned. Suddenly two things are apparent (1) there is a very high degree of disregard of the feelings of the people in the area in question and a complete disregard of their leadership, but it is the (2) paternalism directed at the residents which is the most telling. You can almost hear the venom dripping from the lips of people who cannot understand nor fathom why people do not wish for protected bike lanes to disrupt their Sunday parking locations.

But you could contrast this with the knee-jerk responses of those same folks when it comes to things like building parking facilities in an around the areas surrounding Wrigley Field. The attitude there is no different than that expressed by the South Siders. But the reaction of Liberals is utterly different.

You could take a gathering of Tea Party GOPers and scratch their surfaces to expose the fact that there is not a dimes worth of difference between them and a ChainLink activist where race and ethnicity is concerned. Both groups will claim that they are unbiased and that their responses are characterized by media types that are only interested in poorly spotlighting their concerns. But as Jonathan Maus has discovered much of what one believes is so deeply buried in your subconscious that you never take it out to periodically re-examine it.

So instead ChainLinkers will assuage their consciences with an occasional ride through the South Side or perhaps the West Side when the next aid in the route planning put on by Active Transportation Alliance. But for the most part they will always feel more comfortable on the Northwest Side of the City of Chicago. You will know this because there never seems to be a month when some hapless rider is not searching for ways to express their need to find a “safe route” through an area of “have-nots“.

And along with the occasional Muslim-Jewish Bike Ride there is always a feeling that their fears and hatred are not really that troublesome. Not until one of the riders calls out that the local brewery is a “house of worship” which to a Muslim cyclist has to be about as funny as a bicycle tour of a Bacon Factory on Yom Kippur planned by a Pro-Palestinian group.

But while our racial views are more than a little intolerant Urban Cyclists will have an even more difficult time trying to tamp down their mistrust and  alienation from all things Suburban, not the least of which is their dislike of automobiles.