Airline Racism Against Black and Muslim Passengers Is Out of Hand


On Tuesday, the NAACP released a travel advisory warning African-American travelers that “their safety and well being” might be jeopardized on American Airlines flights. A few weeks prior, in partnership with civil rights organization Muslim Advocates, the organization sent a letter to the heads of eight major airlines, a group that included American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Spirit, Southwest, Virgin and United, demanding they “address the unlawful profiling of Muslims, African Americans, and passengers of color by airlines staff.” The messages were issued on the heels of numerous incidents of black and Muslim (or perceived Muslim) passengers being booted from flights, inexplicably downgraded or treated with disrespect by airline employees. Those cases demonstrate how racism and bigotry pervade every American institution and impact and interrupt the daily lives of people of color.

The NAACP cites four specific examples among what it calls a pattern of disturbing cases in which black travelers were “subject [to] disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions." In April 2016, the Reverend William Barber, a noted civil rights leader who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention and is a vocal leader of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, was kicked off an American Airlines flight after he complained of racial harassment by two drunken white passengers. The inebriated men, one of whom Barber says loudly stated “he did not like ‘those people,’ and that ‘those people’ made him sick,” were allowed to remain on the flight. (The passenger claims Barber took his words “out of context” while admitting his own behavior “was definitely out of line.”) Barber has filed a lawsuit against the airline.

In a Facebook Live video, Women’s March on Washington co-chair Tamika Mallory describes mildly protesting a seating mix-up to a gate agent, only to be condescendingly interrogated by a white male pilot about whether she planned to “behave” or “be a problem,” and then being booted from the plane despite having quietly taken her seat. (“It definitely was white male aggression,” Mallory has said. “I was singled out, I was disrespected, and he was trying to intimidate me. I was discriminated against.”)

Briana Williams, a Harvard Law student flying with her 4-month-old daughter, says she was thrown off an AA flight after she requested the airline return her stroller during a five-hour delay. Rane Baldwin, who is black, purchased two first-class tickets, the second for her friend Janet Novack, who is white. When the two passengers were given their boarding passes, Baldwin found she’d been reassigned to coach, while Novack had retained her first-class seat. Baldwin is an AAdvantage Platinum Select/World Elite cardholder.

“As [Baldwin] asked questions, she was ignored,” Novack write in series of tweets. “However, whenever I asked the same questions, I received thorough answers...The whole reason that I was flying first class was because I was associated with her and her reservation. They were ignoring the cardholder."

In a piece for the Nation, Deepa Iyer catalogues a lengthy list of Muslim and black passenger on various airlines who have faced discriminatory treatment from airline employees. On Southwest Airlines, over a six-month period, a flight attendant pulled a hijab-wearing Muslim woman off a flight because she did “not feel comfortable” with the passenger; a man was kicked off a flight because a white passenger was unnerved by him speaking Arabic on his cell phone; and a group of Middle Eastern men were tossed for asking fellow passengers to switch seats so they could sit together. An American Airlines employee called the cops in response to a minor luggage issue with Symone Sanders, the former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders and a frequent CNN talking head. Iyer also cited the example of Tamika Cross, a black physician who responded to a flight attendant's request for a doctor to help a sick passenger. “Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down,” the Delta employee patronizingly responded to Cross when she volunteered. “[W]e are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you."

The case of Anila Daulatzai, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, is yet another case in point:

Daulatzai, a frequent Southwest Airlines flier, had a traumatic experience on a flight bound for Los Angeles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Daulatzai, a Pakistani American and Muslim woman, asked to be seated far away from dogs on the flight because of an allergy. Southwest Airlines personnel demanded that Daulatzai leave the flight, despite Daulatzai’s assurances that her allergies were not life-threatening. Instead of believing Daulatzai and granting her the agency to make knowledgeable decisions about her own body and her flying preferences, airline personnel and a pilot escalated the situation. They called in airport law enforcement from the Maryland Transportation Authority Police (MTAP) who proceeded to forcibly remove Daulatzai off the flight, despite her pleas that she is pregnant. Daulatzai claims that she was pulled from her seat via her belt and then dragged through the aisle with torn pants. But Daulatzai’s ordeal didn’t end there. She alleges that MTAP law-enforcement agents made racist remarks about immigrants. The MTAP also charged her with five criminal charges, including disorderly conduct, failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order, disturbing the peace, obstructing and hindering a police officer, and resisting arrest.

"There's something that they just didn't trust me with,” Daulatzai said in a subsequent interview. “I was a brown woman with a hoodie."

The comfort of white passengers and airline staff is so fiercely guarded, and racial profiling so absurdly widespread, that one misguided—and hyperparanoid—woman got an Italian economist kicked off a flight because she thought the math equation he was working on was some kind of terrorist missive. And while the cases cited here have gotten press coverage and attention via social media, they’re likely the tip of the iceberg, as the Washington Post points out:

Passengers filed 95 civil rights complaints against U.S. airlines and foreign carriers flying into the country in 2016, according to federal data. That’s a 45 percent uptick from 2015. As of Oct. 16 this year, passengers have filed 70 civil rights complaints against airlines, including at least 13 against American Airlines, according to the Department of Transportation. Even with the increase, these figures probably underrepresent the problem, civil rights organizations say. Many passengers aren’t aware that complaints can be filed with the Department of Transportation. Some only take concerns to the airline or keep quiet about their experiences out of fear of future travel problems or exhaustion with the experience.

American and other airlines have responded on a case-by-case basis, often regurgitating anti-discrimination language from corporate handbooks. In a few cases, they’ve apologized, and in response to the NAACP’s travel warning, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker issued a letter stating the company had “reached out to the NAACP and are eager to meet with them to listen to their issues and concerns.” But the difficulty of erasing racism from any aspect of American society, including airlines, is a way bigger issue than any one meeting can change.

“All travelers must be guaranteed the right to travel without fear of threat, violence or harm,” Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s president and CEO said in the organization’s statement. “The growing list of incidents suggesting racial bias reflects an unacceptable corporate culture and involves behavior that cannot be dismissed as normal or random."

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