This summer I witnessed the mistreatment and removal of a Black family from a Southwest Airlines flight. You can read more of the story here. Many of us who witnessed this spoke up. Southwest could have responded with heart and set themselves apart, but their response was bland and unhelpful. In spite of this I will not lose hope.
Not The First, Not The Last
Unfortunately, stories about racism on Southwest flights are common:
- In November of last year two Philadelphia men, immigrants and entrepreneurs from Palestine were removed from their Southwest Airlines flight.
- The same month, six Muslim passengers were removed from their Southwest flight from Chicago to Houston
- In May of 2016 Arab and Muslim groups protested the pattern of racial profiling at Southwest Airlines stockholder’s meeting.
- This October, Southwest removed Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, allegedly for saying “Inshallah,” (meaning ‘God willing,’ and is said often by many Arabic speakers of all faiths).
Of course this problem is not unique to Southwest:
- In May, American Airlines agents questioned Italian economist Guido Menzio about terrorism. The differential equation he was working on looked like an Arabic terrorist plot to another passenger. According to the USA Today article, Menzio has “olive skin and dark curly hair”. Evidently his racial ambiguity was a factor in the passenger’s concern.
- In August, American Airlines removed Niala Mohammad and her friend from their flight. After waiting on the tarmac for three hours they asked for water. This made their flight attendant feel unsafe.
- Also in August, EasyJet removed three siblings flight because of Arabic writing on one of their phones
- Delta Airlines removed a Muslim couple from their flight from London to Paris (a visit to what the wife called, “the city of romance and love.”)
- On October 10, Delta flight attendants restrained and questioned Physician Tamika Cross when she stood up to administer medical care to an unresponsive passenger. The flight crew seemed to believe it improbable that an African American woman flying out of Detroit could possibly be a medical professional.
- On October 12, United Airlines staff kicked sports journalist Amanda Stevens off her United Airlines flight for wearing a ball cap promoting Marvel’s Black Panther. When United Airlines responded they referred to Ms. Stevens as Ms. Campos.
Southwest Missed an Opportunity
Racial bias is not unique to Southwest. But Southwest could have set themselves apart in their response. After a month, Southwest sent postcard. It said that I would receive a response within five days. Nine days later I received an email.
It was nearly word for word what had been sent to my husband nearly two months earlier.
From Southwest’s Twitter Account, Nicole in June:
Demonstrating a hurtful attitude is not condoned at Southwest Airlines. Indeed, discrimination for any reason is wrong. Our Company could not survive if we believed otherwise. In fact, a cursory view of our workforce, as well as our expansive, multi-cultural Customer base, is a reliable indicator that we exalt and appreciate diversity.
From Southwest’s Email Account, Kaigen at the end of August:
Indeed, discrimination for any reason is wrong, and Southwest Airlines does not condone it. Our Company could not survive if we believed otherwise. In fact, a cursory view of our workforce, as well as our expansive, multi-cultural Customer base, is a reliable indicator that we exalt and appreciate diversity. I assure you that Southwest Airlines does not condone discrimination or prejudice in any form.
Southwest could have responded so much better; but they chose copy and paste.
A Better Example
I recently wrote to my councilmember to ask what steps the city of Saint Paul was taking to promote racial justice in light of the death of Philando Castile. Councilmember Tolbert wrote back a two-page letter in which he:
- shared his own heart ache around racism and Castile’s death
- outlined SPPD community engagement initiatives over the past 2 years
- described the SPPD recruitment strategies underway to ensure a force more representative of the community it serves
- shared particular training topics and leaders that SPPD officers received in cultural competency, communication and diffusion strategies, and
- closed with an overview of a few other initiatives within the city including a program available at the library in our ward to discuss the ways that race impacts all areas of our lives and government. Then thanked me for working to make a difference in my city.
Like every organization, the city and SPPD have work to do for a more equitable community. The contrast between these two letters showed me one was doing the work. The other was happy to give lip service to diversity.
Not for Me Alone
After the letter was published on The Salt Collective, a friend of a friend introduced me to Chris Elliott. Elliott is a journalist/consumer advocate who writes columns for USA Today, The Washington Post, Money Magazine and King Syndicate. But the incident did not directly impact me, so privacy concerns limited what he or anyone else could find out.
As Southwest was removing the family, the mother asked the man next to us for his contact information. He said, “don’t worry, I’m already contacting customer service.” None of us ever exchanged information with each other. I wish that we had given her our information. I want to know how Southwest responded to the family. And I want to be able to fight with them if they continue to face problems. It’s maybe not my business what happened to the family. I would love to show the family that I stand with them.
There is a blurry line between speaking up for, and speaking up instead of someone. As a white woman in the struggle against white supremacy I am called to be an ally not a hero. Connecting with people around me, those directly impacted and other witnesses is a way to make that line clearer.
My Silence Is Violence
The response from Southwest was disappointing. But we are responsible for speaking up regardless of the outcome. In Ezekiel 33, God describes this responsibility:
7 You, human one, I’ve made you a lookout for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear me speaking, you must give them warning from me. 8 If I pronounce a death sentence on wicked people, and you don’t warn them to turn from their way, they will die in their guilt, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. 9 But suppose you do warn the wicked of their ways so that they might turn from them. If they don’t turn from their ways, they will die in their guilt, but you will save your life. (CEB)
When we see violent and wicked things (like racial bias and white supremacy), we have a duty to speak. Those that continue to do wickedness are responsible for how they respond to that warning. But if we do not speak up, we share responsibility for the violence.
So we do not give up. We do not become weary in doing good. Because we have hope that one day we will reap a harvest of justice if we do not give up. Until then, we keep watching and warning.