Hannah opens the door of the silver Honda Civic that has just pulled up in front of her Marina apartment. She ducks her head in to say hello and confirm her Uber driver’s name is José before climbing into the backseat. The car accelerates and Hannah hoists her Herschel backpack, a subtle LinkedIn logo engraved on the top, onto the seat next to her. She slips her Apple pods snuggly into her ears to listen to the latest episode of This American Life, while José navigates through the morning traffic towards her downtown office.
San Francisco is full of inconsistencies. People project empathy; they listen to podcasts on social justice issues and proudly advertise their Democratic votes in the last election. City dwellers champion global movements such as climate change and gay rights, yet they do not engage in promoting positive change at a local level.
Unbeknownst to Hannah, José has driven almost seventy miles today chauffeuring people around the city. San Francisco’s a hot market for riders and he’s hoping to score a few longer trips to the airport, which would bring his daily earnings to a grand total of eighty dollars.
Despite the intersection of Hannah and José’s lives, their stories leading up to this moment are quite different. Both were born in the U.S. in the late eighties, but Hannah grew up in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Although she wasn’t the best student, she managed to graduate from a four-year college and launch her career at a local tech company. José was born to an immigrant family. His parents left El Salvador in the mid-eighties, fleeing civil war and government-sponsored violence in their home country. Aided by a cousin who had immigrated a few years before, José’s parents moved to Richmond, California. They settled in a Spanish-speaking refugee community and began working seasonal, labor-intensive jobs. As a teenager, José attended his neighborhood high school, but he left during his sophomore year to help his family earn money and support his younger sisters. After a series of odd jobs gardening and painting, he learned about Uber from a friend of his and signed up to be a driver.
Isn’t interesting how two people who grew up in the Bay Area, only 50 miles away from each other, have had such different life trajectories?
It’s not a coincidence. The problems of inequality in the Bay Area are rooted in place-based, racialized economic disparities. In fact, race, income, and geography are so deeply intertwined that I can accurately predict someone’s annual income knowing nothing but their five-digit zip code. Sadly, race—or rather, race and ethnicity, which includes cultural factors like nationality, ancestry, and language—happens to be an excellent predictor of zip code. That means that if I know your race, I can make an educated guess as to where you live, and if I know where you live, I can make a fairly accurate guess as to how much money you make.