This February, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—widely seen as one of the more liberal federal courts in the nation—issued its ruling in Darensburg v. Metropolitan Transit Commission, a lawsuit brought by poor, largely minority riders of public buses in the San Francisco Bay Area. The plaintiffs had alleged that, since a large majority of the city’s bus riders were nonwhite, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s preference for rail-expansion projects over bus-expansion projects was racially biased and a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The court ruled against the plaintiffs and issued a stinging rebuke to their lawyers. Is it possible that, even in California, courts long tolerant of questionable claims of racial discrimination may finally be running out of patience?
Sylvia Darensburg, the primary plaintiff in the case, is an African-American mother of three who lives in East Oakland and relies on public buses as her primary form of transportation. Darensburg, said the Equal Justice Society—a San Francisco–based activist organization that advocated on behalf of the plaintiffs, though it wasn’t involved in the case itself—“experiences the reality of transit inequality.” She “endures” long waits for the two buses she rides and has to walk 12 blocks from home to the nearest bus stop. The plaintiffs argued that while nearly 80 percent of Bay Area bus riders were people of color, the region’s rail service predominantly benefited white riders. So the Metropolitan Transit Commission’s disproportionate funding of rail projects was biased.
But the court discovered that, in fact, over 51 percent of rail riders were members of minority groups. “The evidence shows that Bay Area minorities already benefit substantially from rail service,” the court said, adding that “no court could possibly determine whether MTC’s long-term expansion plan will help or harm the region’s minority transit riders.” It concluded: “Not only does Plaintiffs’ statistical evidence fail to prove discrimination, but their circumstantial evidence does not support any inference” that the transit company was motivated by racial bias.
Most significantly, the court shed the notion, prevalent for decades, that presumes that policy actions that affect broad swaths of people often contain a hidden agenda targeting minorities and the poor. The court concluded instead that, barring dispositive evidence that minorities and the poor were truly victims, the court’s role should be minimal. It gave the benefit of the doubt to a body politic that has matured and become far more tolerant than it was just 40 years ago.
What the architects of the civil rights movement struggled for was equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. It would be nice, of course, if people who rode buses invariably found them easily accessible and on time. That won’t always be the case anywhere—but it doesn’t mean that race- or class-based discrimination is responsible. As Ninth Circuit judge John T. Noonan wrote in his concurring opinion: “The notion of a Bay Area board bent on racist goals is a specter that only desperate litigation could entertain.”
Perhaps what’s making today’s civil rights advocates “desperate” is their vanishing relevance in a world of diminished bigotry and increasingly liberal racial attitudes. That hasn’t stopped an advocacy group in Los Angeles from making allegations similar to those in the Bay Area case, claiming that cuts to bus service being considered by the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority will harm minorities. The Federal Transit Administration is investigating, and if the dispute heads for court, we may learn whether the Ninth Circuit’s ruling was an anomaly or a sign of things to come.