On She Goes

Passengers Like Who?: Bus Line Under Investigation for Racist Promo

Long-distance bus rides can be unpleasant enough without a side of xenophobia.

Amy Lam
Amy Lam
December 7, 2017
Story hero image

With uncomfortable seats, stretches of bumpy roads without a bathroom stop, and dismal food choices at pit stops, long-distance bus rides can be unpleasant enough without a side of xenophobia.

Suburban Express, based in Champaign, Illinois, near the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), is under fire for an email newsletter sent earlier this month targeting students who are heading home for winter break. Some of the perks that were highlighted include no baggage fees, refundable tickets, and “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” Really?

Courtesy of Asian Pacific American Coalition at UIUC.

The Asian Pacific American Coalition at UIUC released a statement that includes the following:

When Suburban Express says that riding with them allows a rider to sit with “students that look like you,” based on the demographics of the university, we can only assume that the “you” references the largest university demographic, white students (43.44%, according to https://oiir.illinois.edu/about/demographics, with African American students at 5.2% and Latinx students at 9.3%). Spaces like this, where white students are given the option to avoid people that “don’t look like them” speaks to a much, much larger problem of racism and white supremacy in this nation.

After receiving backlash, they responded with an “apology” email that stated: “We made a remark based on the fact that our competitor mostly handles Chinese international students. The remark is being interpreted as a slap in the face of all non-Caucasians for some reason, and that it [sic] not how it was intended.”

Courtesy of Asian Pacific American Coalition at UIUC.

“For some reason” the bus company’s apology veered into explaining how the University of Illinois has mismanaged their budget and must rely on international students to make up for their lack of funds. The bus company claimed, “Nearly 20% of U of I students are natives of China, and this high percentage of nonnative English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students.” Besides the fact that these figures are factually inaccurate, what are these burdens to domestic students?

You know what’s a real burden? Having the state’s attorney general looking into your business. The Illinois attorney general’s office got wind of this and has opened an investigation into the bus company for possibly violating civil rights. Attorney General Lisa Madigan stated, “I am concerned that this advertisement may reflect that Suburban Express is discriminating against potential customers. Under the law, access to transportation must not be impacted or based on a person’s race or national origin. My office is investigating to determine whether Suburban Express’ policies and practices violate the law.”

In the meantime, folks can ride with other bus companies alongside passengers just like them—people who are boycotting Suburban Express.