Should black Americans boycott American Airlines?

Steven W. Thrasher, The Guardian

american airlinesAfter a months-long investigation found “a pattern of disturbing incidents reported by African American passengers, specific to American Airlines,” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has issued a “national advisory alerting travelers – especially African Americans – to exercise caution, in that booking and boarding flights on American Airlines could subject them disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions”.

This is a wise move for the venerable civil rights organization, as boycotting or threatening to boycott companies – especially airlines in regards to racism — is the only way to push reforms and seek an end to racial profiling, micro-aggressions, and outright violence.

When the NAACP celebrated its centenary during the Obama administration, it had a naive “mission accomplished” feel. However, it has been increasingly assertive over the past few years, pushed to greater relevance by the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Trumpism.

Just this summer, the NAACP issued its first ever travel advisory for the state of Missouri, warning African Americans, LGBT people and women that “race, gender and color based crimes have a long history in Missouri”.

Travel is an arena where African Americans are especially vulnerable. After being brought to the United States against their will in chattel slavery, African Americans’ movement has been policed and curtailed by way of slave patrols, the “Black Codes,” segregated motels“sundown towns,” the KKK, and the police violence of “driving while black”.

The NAACP has shown how African Americans face discrimination on planes, from the “African American man [who] was required to relinquish his purchased seats aboard a flight – merely because he responded to disrespectful and discriminatory comments directed toward him by two unruly white passengers” to how an “African American woman and her infant child were removed from a flight – when the woman (incidentally, a Harvard law school student) asked that her stroller be retrieved from checked baggage before she would disembark”.

Earlier this year, the NAACP’s legal defense fund also denounced the “the unlawful profiling of airline passengers on the basis of race or religion has become disturbingly common” in matters of post 9/11 “flying while Muslim”.

Threatening airlines’ bottom line works. When the internet was rightfully enraged by David Dao being dragged off a plane and losing teeth in Chicago, United swiftly updated its policies for bumping people from flights and settled with with Dao.

But the challenge with boycotting airlines is that there are really only a few of them in the US, each monopolizes a different part of the country, and they all have racial transgressions worthy of boycotting. For instance, a black woman was violently removed on video off a Delta flight in December, while a white man was allowed to rant about “Hillary bitches” last November on another Delta flight and still fly. (Delta later banned him.)

So can we afford to threaten all airlines with withholding our business if they’re all bad? Well, the black women who organized the Montgomery bus boycottcouldn’t afford to boycott the only bus line – but they did it for over a year and changed history.

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the truth upon them,” NAACP cofounder Ida B Wells once said. The NAACP is confronting American Airlines with some truth. But corporations react out of fear, and American Airlines isn’t yet afraid of the NAACP’s warning.

“Our team members – a diverse community of gate agents, pilots, and flight attendants – are proud to serve customers of all backgrounds,” an American spokeswoman said. Writing “diverse” and “customers of all backgrounds” elides the anti-black racism the NAACP wants to address.

But the NAACP is right to investigate racism anywhere it is, and to hold companies to account.

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