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Illinois attorney general launches civil rights inquiry into bus company

Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, December 5, 2017  |  Article  |  Dawn RhodesContact Reporter

Attorney General (6)

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office is investigating a bus company that serves University of Illinois students for potential civil rights violations, the latest fallout in response to the company’s racially tinged weekend ad that disparaged Chinese students and the university’s admissions policies.

Madigan’s office announced Monday it had issued a subpoena for Suburban Express, a bus company based in Champaign that provides shuttle service from various universities to O’Hare International Airport and Chicago-area suburbs.
The office is investigating whether the company’s policies and practices violate the Illinois Human Rights Act, a probe based upon the weekend email promotion that boasted “you won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses,” according to the statement. Madigan is seeking documents, records and other information from the company to evaluate its business operations.
The office is investigating whether the company’s policies and practices violate the Illinois Human Rights Act, a probe based upon the weekend email promotion that boasted “you won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses,” according to the statement. Madigan is seeking documents, records and other information from the company to evaluate its business operations.

“We screwed up and we know it,” the statement read. “Our apology was inadequate. We hope to open a dialogue with Alderman Pawar about our shortcomings and how to make our services more inclusive in the future.”

Lilia Chacon, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department, said Suburban Express is licensed by the state, not the city.

“In Chicago this kind of language in marketing would not be tolerated,” Chacon said in a statement. “Because their service is a one-way transport, typically to O’Hare or suburban malls, they do not require a city license. However, because of concerns about the company’s offensive marketing strategy we are referring this company for review by the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.”

The Saturday ad sent via email publicized shuttle services from Urbana-Champaign to various Chicago suburbs throughout the university’s holiday break. Amid the list of perks being offered by the company’s services the ad stated:

“Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

A second email later that day, titled “Apology,” dismissed those who characterized the ad as being racist. The message then shifted to pointedly criticize U. of I.’s admission policies, incorrectly stating that Chinese-born students make up 20 percent of the student body, that the university’s primary motive in enrolling international students was money and that that number of “nonnative English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students.”

There are 5,868 Chinese students enrolled at Urbana-Champaign this fall — 12 percent of the population, according to university data.

The messages quickly spurred angry responses from university officials and student groups.

“We cannot prevent a private company from operating in our community,” part of the statement from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs read. “But we can, loudly and unambiguously, say that the opinions expressed by Suburban Express are offensive, bigoted, insulting and in direct opposition to the values of this university.”

drhodes@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @rhodes_dawn