Flying while High: Racial Profiling on AirTran Airlines

This ABC broadcast features an interview with the family that was taken off of an AirTran flight from DCA to Florida. The full story entitled, “9 Muslim Passengers Removed From Jet,” appears on The Washington Post site today.  According to the article,

“At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn’t have made on the airplane, and other people heard them,” Hutcheson said. “Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions.”

A Muslim family was removed from an AirTran flight after a conversation about the safest place to sit.

Here’s the issue: I hear people make all kinds of crazy remarks at the airport – even about their safety, and no one does anything. This family didn’t make comments that any family might make about the safety of flying – especially when doing so with young children. Instead, based on their appearance, identity and race, passengers assumed they were a threat. It didn’t “just so happen,” that passengers, were “suspicious” of this particular family. In many ways, it makes sense: at the height of violence between Hamas and Israel, we have been primed for inappropriate stereotypical thinking about Muslim people.

Harvard University has developed a tool specifically to observe our unconscious biases, it’s called the Implicit Association Test. The test is an interactive web tool. If you have doubts about implicit bias (your own or others) or are just curious, take the Arab-Muslim IAT.

What’s even more telling is the title of the article, “9 Muslim Passengers,” which obfuscates the fact that of those passengers, three were children, none over the age of 7 and one a toddler. It’s far less (or more, depending on whome you ask)  incendiary perhaps, to say “9 Muslim Passengers,” as opposed to properly identifying those nine people removed from the airplane, as what they are – a family. Is part of our racist fantasy about Muslim people, that they are a threat, will certainly try to kill us – taking us, them, and their children? Our world has seen many despicable terrors,  actions we believe impossible. What kind of time in the world have we come to, when we can look at a family, boarding a plane, wondering about the safety of those they love, and see them as meaning harm? Is that a response to the times or a response to our socialized beliefs about “the other”?

In several of the articles I’ve read reporting on the story, many make mention that “nine Muslims, eight of them U.S.-born,” as if being Muslim and U.S. born are mutually exclusive. One can’t possibly be U.S.-born and also be Muslim; there’s a need somehow, the articles imply, to identify that Muslims can be, and in fact many are, U.S.-born and U.S. citizens. As one of the family members said, ‘we’re from Detroit.” And if ever there was an American city right now, with its economic woes, and the heart of the auto industry located in its midst, it’s Detroit.

AirTran and TSA are working hard to make this the family’s fault – that they said something inappropriate. What again, is inappropriate about asking where it’s safest to be on a plane? I think about safety everytime I fly. It’s why I like to sit over the wing (structurally sound, near the emergency exit). The TSA is trying to spin this as an example of security working, someone heard something, and alerted the right people, and protocol was followed. Yet, if the Irfran family were really a threat, shouldn’t an airline screening, before  they went to the airport have spotlighted any possible threat? The real threat is the very real danger of our stereotypical and racist thinking.

If there were any doubt that people of color need to build solidarity, we’ve been getting lots of reminders lately. This is an opportunity, particularly for Black folks, to acknowledge that our experience, while extraordinarily unique, is part of a larger foundation which has been used as a model for many global structures of racism and oppression that have impacted how all people of color and many oppressed people are treated. Racial profiling happens to those identified as “the other,” whether they are Driving While Black, Flying While Muslim, Living While Latino.   Three words: critical race theory. Know about it.

Professor Patricia Hill Collins describes CRT as drawing “upon paradigms of intersectionality. Recognizing that race and racism work with and through gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality and/or nation as systems of power, contemporary critical race theory often relies upon and/or investigates these intersections.”

To my fellow people of color, South Asians, faithful Muslims, I certainly hope that 2009 will be a turning point, where we truly look at one another and “see past the color of someone’s skin, to the content of their character.” Electing Barak Obama is a powerful leap to the side of equity, yet it will take patience and a good dose of truth-telling, seeking, and witnessing, as we wait for people to get their minds right.  In the words of Gloria Anzaldua :

Theory, then, is a set of knowledges. Some of these knowledges have been kept from us – entry into some preofessions and avademia denied us. Because we are not allowed to enter discourse, because we are often disqualified and excluded from it, becasue what passes for theory these days is forbidden territory for us, it is vital that we occupy theorizing space. (Anzaldua, 1990)

 Critical Race Theory Resources

http://www.temple.edu/tempress/chapters_1100/1169_ch1.pdf

http://www.pages.drexel.edu/~jp49/

http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/centersinstitutes/racecrimejustice/publishedpaper.pdf

http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/lsf/isaksen24.htm

http://www.bsos.umd.edu/socy/People/Faculty/Syllabi/socy729B_pcollins.pdf

Additional Articles:

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/01/01/family.grounded/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/03/airtran-flight-muslim-passengers

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