Illinois bus company Suburban Express is facing a civil rights lawsuit after making a politically incorrect marketing pitch.
State Attorney General Lisa Madigan launched the litigation, promising to put Suburban Express out of business for insulting Chinese students attending the University of Illinois.
The Chicago Sun Times reports that the company touched off a ‘political firestorm’ last year with a promotional e-mail. In a Christmas-time offer, Suburban promised travelers, “You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
Instead, promised Suburban Express, you’d get to ride with people “like you.”
While the company didn’t clarify who may be entailed by the pronoun, it at least clearly excluded Chinese students, likely alienating other minorities, too.
If the e-mail could be defended as a one-off marketing stunt published in poor taste, Madigan claims Suburban Express owner Dennis Toeppen’s own comments prove otherwise. Highlighting what she calls a pattern of discrimination and harassment, the attorney general referenced another incident from the company’s archive.
Toeppen, says Madigan, uploaded a video of himself speaking with a so-called ‘Asian’ accent, telling viewers that English is no longer the most-spoken language at one University of Illinois dormitory. He also told passengers to ‘bone up’ on their vocabulary, questioning why students would attend American universities without being able to communicate in a common tongue.
Stranger still, writes the Sun-Times, Toeppen once banned an ‘Asian’ customer he couldn’t believe was unable to read using the Latin alphabet. He later directed a customer service employee to ‘not bother’ responding to complaints or phone enquiries from anyone speaking less-than-fluent English.
Suburban’s business tactics went from beyond discriminatory to potentially encouraging fraud. To ban and shame complaining customers, claims the AG, Toeppen would harass individuals who posted poor reviews of the company, sometimes warning employers and universities to discard their applications. He also allegedly distributed the credit card information, home addresses, and contact numbers of ‘bad’ customers online.
Suburban Express’s animosity toward minorities wasn’t confined to Chinese students, either. Toeppen called tracts of Chicago’s northern suburbs ‘the land of no ham,’ apparently in reference to the area’s large Jewish population.
The civil rights lawsuit claims that, not coincidentally, Toeppen banned ticket purchases from customers with ZIP codes overlapping those areas.
The marketing stunt which set off the investigation was, according to the Sun-Times, handled so poorly that the effect is practically comedic. In addition to claiming their remark had been misconstrued as a ‘slap in the face of all non-caucasians for some reason,’ Suburban Express managed to integrate a condemnation of Chinese international students into their own apology.
“U. of I. mismanagement over the past few decades has put them in a financial bind. To solve the problem, they admit large numbers of international students who pay higher tuition,” read the self-proclaimed apology. “Nearly 20 percent of non-native English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students.”
Later on, Toeppen said sorry for continuing to “upset the very people we were sad to have lost” to a competitor.