Photo depicting the inside of a city bus with passengers blurred in the background.

OPINION | Pierce Transit Racial Equity Optics Is Not an Actual Plan to Combat Structural Racism

by Fathi Karshie

Pierce Transit, a municipal transit agency that generates 73% of its budget from taxation, avoids acknowledging its institutional role and its place in the racist history of public transportation. The agency disproportionately fires Black employees, and its leaders despise any meaningful structural change that would otherwise help address anti-Blackness. Available data analyses are direct responses to legal compliance requirements as opposed to discovery intended to explore meaningful paths to structural reform. One HR person with whom I shared my concern remarked, “We are looking good, plus we just passed the triennial audit,” referring to Federal Transit audits that frisk for legal disparities once every three years. In other words, as long as they are within compliance, all is tolerable. 

While Pierce Transit is not unique nor the first public transit agency to accentuate structural and institutional racism, what is unique about Pierce Transit is its leadership’s apathy to structural racism and deceptive use of data and aversion to learning while at the same time presenting itself as an agency responding to needed social justice reform. The leadership, supposedly responsible for equity work, tout their diversity knowledge by brandishing a $99 DEI certification designed to introduce human resources professionals to concepts and definitions. “We need to showcase our HR team’s accomplishments,” an executive told me as we prepared to present to the Board. Yet it is at this very social-legal theater — presented through weaponized data and walled certifications — that workplace racism and specifically anti-Black violence is buried. 

What the agency strives for is optics. For instance, the agency is a signatory to American Public Transit Association’s (APTA) Racial Equity Commitment Plan. This 2021 Commitment Plan, birthed at the convergence of the COVID pandemic and the civil unrest that illuminated structural racial injustices, was intended to onboard transits around North America to address racial and structural inequities. Signing on to this Racial Equity Commitment Plan meant that the agency would follow APTA’s two-year road map to “advance racial equity.” Defining this road map and the “racial equity” frame are its core principles: to make racial equity an explicit strategic priority; undertake equity and inclusion climate assessment; put in place policies, practices, programs, and processes for creating and maintaining an inclusive and equitable environment; and establishing tools resources that engage executives, board leadership and staff at all levels. 

Though this racial equity frame is intended to call attention to and disrupt normalized inequities “through anti-racist policies and ideas,” for some mysterious reason, the leadership at Pierce Transit dreads anything racial equity. Yet their signing on to this Commitment Plan is constantly flaunted by the leadership including, most recently, at the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), as an achievement. But for such images, the transit is social justice equity bankrupt.

For instance, the agency recently appointed a Black woman as the equity manager. This person admits they know nothing about workforce equity or programmatic diversity and inclusion. The selection of this person to guard the agency’s equity door is illustrative of the almost violent disregard for real racial equity. This tokenizing selection comes at the expense of shoving aside a credentialed white woman — a subject matter expert. But a Black woman playing equity security guard in an agency that is staffed by almost 85% white administrators serves the desired optics. Racial equity is more nuanced than using Black bodies as prompts, it is guarding alertness to all forms of discrimination, even against white bodies.

There are no female protective officers serving the agency, and less than 2% of the maintenance workforce are women. This in a county almost 30% minorities and 50% women. Furthermore, while the agency may tout 42% of its workforce as minorities and above the county’s mark of 30%, the painful reality is that 77% of this group is classified as either (7) “semi-skilled” or (8) “unskilled” laborers according to EEO-4 classification. Contrast this with the fact that the executive, the seat of decision, has only one Black person and zero of any other of a number of races in the county. Or that Black employees — between March 2021 to Feb. 2022 — were fired at twice the rate of any other group.

The agency has an activity-style Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee that jubilates in printing recipes and cookbooks and raising flags. According to one of the executives, this committee “is a tiny tiny part of equity work.” In other words, it is a committee without a portfolio, beyond the optics. Yet the Board, during its November “study” meeting, was handed a slew of PowerPoint nosegays as racial equity achievements. Included in this slew was a self-accentuating “quarterly” newsletter — with no readership — printed by the “committee.” One contributor told me, “I pleasured in writing articles for the newsletter till I discovered that we, the authors, were also its only ardent consumers.”       

To resist self-deluding leaders, those setting up Potemkin on a land that still bleeds racial redlining is civic duty and a social justice stand that belongs to us all. Public transportation, for those who depend on it, is a means to access opportunities, including jobs, parks, better housing, neighborhoods, and connecting with friends and family.

In Nobody Knows My Name James Baldwin remarked, of the possibility of heaven, “it would seem, unless one looks more deeply at the phenomenon, that most people are able to delude themselves and get through their lives quite happily. But I still think the unexamined life is not worth living.”

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📸 Featured Image: Photo via M-Production/

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