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Google search answered ‘what does MARTA stand for’ with racist joke

It is an online conversation any frequent user of Reddit’s Atlanta page is familiar with: A tourist wants advice on taking MARTA, and an opinionated debate ensues about the pros and cons of the city’s public transportation system.  

That scenario played out earlier this week when someone who identified himself as a 23-year-old “white guy” driving in from Charlotte asked for advice. He mentioned race, he said, after learning “MARTA's nickname” when he asked Google Home what the acronym stood for.

Earlier this week, Google searches for “what does MARTA stand for” returned a featured snippet — a block at the top of the search results page with a summary of the answer — that supplied a decades-old derogatory saying instead of the correct information. “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta” was offered in big bold letters, where Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority should have been.

Google has removed the inaccurate featured snippet in response to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We've looked into it and acted quickly to address the issue,” spokeswoman Crystal Dahlen said Wednesday evening.

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A screenshot of a search this week for “what does MARTA stand for” returning a featured snippet that did not provide the correct answer. ((Becca Godwin/AJC))

The incorrect result used information from MARTA’s Wikipedia entry, which, in its first sentence, correctly defines MARTA: "Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority is the principal public transport operator in the Atlanta metropolitan area." 

However, in the section on the effects of race on expansion and funding, the entry says MARTA is “sometimes sarcastically said to stand for ‘Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta’, a replacement backronym, due to the relatively low number of white riders, particularly after peak commuting hours." That sentence is cited with a 2001 AJC article about a marketing proposal designed to improve MARTA’s image. The story mentions how the acronym has long been the subject of a racially charged joke: "You know what MARTA really stands for, don't you?”

The 17-year-old article describes how “an Internet search of the phrase shows it turns up in national publications such as The New Republic and as far away as Turkey.” It also notes that the transit agency had considered a name change as it prepared to pitch an expansion to Gwinnett County voters, “in part because it was common knowledge that the acronym was being altered into an ethnic joke.”

Attempts to change MARTA’s name are still around. Earlier this year, state Sen. Brandon Beach unveiled a proposal that would include calling an expanded regional transit system, to include MARTA, “The ATL.” 

“Rebranding will do some good,” the Alpharetta Republican and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee has said. The fate of that transit expansion bill will be known by Thursday, the last day of the legislative session.


READ | Riding on MARTA: AJC readers on race and ethnicity in Atlanta

READ | An AJC reader recounts her experience of race on MARTA


MARTA officials are aware of the backronym “that was created to marginalize rapid transit and the people who depend on it,” spokeswoman Stephany Fisher said Wednesday. She said the agency didn’t try to get the search result changed because “attempting to control internet search results is not a productive use of our time.

(For the AJC)

We proudly serve all who need transportation and anyone who denies our passengers are diverse, doesn’t ride MARTA,” Fisher said.

The derogatory saying is steeped in a racist history, as demonstrated by another article from the AJC archives. 

Reporter Frederick Allen wrote about hearing the phrase while covering a massive racial protest march in Forsyth County in January 1987. He couldn’t forget the image of “a furious young white woman, the tendons in her neck strained and popping, her features distorted with rage, shrieking at the marchers, ‘Do you know what MARTA stands for?!?’”

Allen wrote: 

“Anyone white who has lived more than a month or two in these parts has heard a fair bit of racial humor, including the longstanding joke about the "real" acronym for MARTA — Moving Africans Rapidly Through AtlantaIt is supposed to be only mildly offensive, a naughty commentary on the belief that Atlanta's public transit clientele is largely black.  

I never did find it terribly amusing. But now, after hearing that young woman spit it out, rat-tat-tat, as though it were some pointed weapon in a war for white supremacy, I never will be able to hear it again without shuddering. Nor any other supposedly harmless quip that plays on race.”


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In other transit news: 

VIDEO: Learn more about mass transit expansion options in metro Atlanta with the AJC's "5 things to know" series.

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