Suburban Express, a shuttle bus company that picks up students from the Chicago area and takes them to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, is under fire for an advertisement targeting the school system's Chinese students and passengers.
The University of Illinois’ Office of the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs deemed the company’s weekend email ad “racist and bigoted” and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan opened a civil rights investigation into the transportation company’s practices and services after Suburban Express offered what many saw as a sarcastic and offensive “apology” for the ad. One alderman even bluntly responding, "This is not an apology."
Suburban Express’ ad listed 11 reasons why students should choose the shuttle during holiday season travels, with one of them declaring, “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
The bus company makes several stops in Greater Chicago area suburbs and takes them to six university campuses in the Midwest, including U of I’s Urbana-Champaign campus. The Saturday morning email was immediately met with criticism, which prompted the bus company to offer an apology of sorts -- followed by a second statement that piled on even more criticism.
In a follow-up email entitled, “Apology,” the second message referencing the University of Illinois’ international student population was ridiculed as potentially more offensive than the initial ad itself.
“We made a remark based on the fact that our competitor mostly handles Chinese international students,” the second email read, NBC Chicago first reported. “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.”
“We must concede that we disagree with the way the University of Illinois is being run. U of I is a state school that is funded by taxpayers and is built on land granted by the people of the State of Illinois. As such, we believe that the mission of the University of Illinois should be providing high-quality, affordable education to the citizens of Illinois,” the message on the company website continued.
Suburban Express’ website had previously been criticized for a “Page of Shame,” a now-deleted tab showing the names, addresses and contact information for so-called “bad customers” of the bus service.
University of Illinois school system administrators issued a statement in response, saying the bus company has “a long history of taking advantage of students, staff and faculty…[the email] once again demonstrated the company’s disregard and disdain towards the values of inclusivity that define our university.”
“The message specifically insulted members of our Chinese, Asian and Asian American communities who are a vital and valued part of every aspect of both the University of Illinois and our local cities. These types of racist and bigoted statements attacking any members of our community deserve nothing but condemnation from all of us,” reads the statement from the school’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.
Administrators said that despite the “offensive, bigoted, insulting” opinions from Suburban Express, they “cannot prevent a private company from operating in our community.”
According to NBC News and the Chicago Tribune, around 11,000 of the school’s 45,000 current Fall 2017 students are international, with about 6,000 of the total undergraduate and graduate student population hailing from China.
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), chairman of the City Council’s Asian-American Caucus and an influential alderman, weighed in on the controversy, saying he wants the Aviation Committee to hold hearings on the incident to potentially evict Suburban Express from O'Hare International Airport.
“O’Hare is one of the busiest airports on the planet. It is the gateway to Chicago. Sort of the welcome mat. Do we want companies like Suburban Express serving that gateway — a company that blatantly makes racist and xenophobic statements?” Pawar told the Chicago Sun-Times.
But the bus company has continued to dig a hole , even referring back to a 2013 incident involving a subcontracted bus company employee and a “non-English speaking customer, the Champaign News Gazette reported. The statement additionally blamed the company’s bad publicity within the university network on a “student agitator" looking to drive international students' business away.
“We agreed that the comment was inappropriate and we promptly apologized,” the company added. “Nevertheless, a student agitator made it his full-time job to tell the world that Suburban Express is racist based on the comment which we agreed was inappropriate, and for which we apologized.”
“In any event, we did not intend to offend half the planet,” the bus company’s message concluded.