Sunday, January 4, 2009

Let's Ring in the New Year with Some Racial Profiling!

Sidra Hamidi is an undergraduate student at
North Central College. She is a senior research assistant for The Project on Race in Political Communication and administrative assistant for the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Race & Ethnicity.

The election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America has initiated much talk about America’s ability to, at long last, overcome racism and bigotry. Although 2008 has resulted in a momentous achievement in the continuing struggle for racial equality, this past week has proven that racial profiling incidents continue to plague the American psyche. On Thursday, January 1st, nine Muslim passengers were forced off an AirTran flight at Reagan National Airport. Three of the nine passengers were children who were part of a family heading to Orlando for a religious retreat. Apparently, members of this family had made a “suspicious remark” which caused other passengers and two federal air marshals on board the plane to complain and ended up with the removal of the nine Muslims. Kashif Irfan, one of the passengers, stated, “My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security. The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window.' I think they were remarking about safety.”

All nine of the passengers were questioned by the FBI and even after being cleared for travel, were not allowed back on the plane by AirTran officials. It is important to stress that the six adult passengers were traditionally Muslim in appearance, as the men wore beards and the women wore hijabs. Although AirTran denied that the passengers’ appearance had anything to do with the incident, referring to it as a mere happenstance that all nine were Muslim, it is likely that the result would have been different had they been non-Muslims. A spokesman for AirTran, Tad Hutcheson stated, “It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions.”

It is understandable that AirTran took all of the necessary precautions to settle the issue; however, the most irksome part of the ordeal is that the nine passengers were still not allowed on the flight after it was declared a misunderstanding by FBI agents. In fact, the FBI urged the airline to allow the passengers back on the plane. AirTran did issue an apology on Friday along with refunded tickets. However, this half-hearted apology does not justify the discriminatory response of the airline. Clearly, AirTran was looking out for the safety and convenience of their passengers but the question is: which passengers are more important? It is apparent that AirTran inconvenienced and humiliated one set of passengers on the basis of their appearance while focusing on the “safety” of others. Additionally, reports have continually stressed that all but one of the passengers were natural-born U.S. citizens as though a non-citizen would automatically be more suspicious just because of her or his citizenship status.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which, among other functions, works to enhance the civil rights of American Muslims, has lodged a complaint against the U.S. Department of Transportation and has stated:
It is incumbent on any airline to ensure that members of the traveling public are not singled out or mistreated based on their perceived race, religion or national origin. We believe this disturbing incident would never have occurred had the Muslim passengers removed from the plane not been perceived by other travelers and airline personnel as members of the Islamic faith.
According to CAIR, AirTran should have taken a more balanced approach when dealing with the complaint instead of relying on the paranoid and exaggerated objections of a few passengers.

Just when we thought the heyday of racial profiling was over, it has yet again reared its ugly head as a reminder that for every step forward, we may take a step back. Oftentimes, occurrences of racial profiling can go unaccounted for because it is difficult to quantify the phenomenon unless there has been a formal complaint and because there may be different degrees of discrimination. In this instance, racial profiling was more than a little obvious despite AirTran’s dismissal of racial factors as a motivating force. However, in other cases, profiling may manifest itself as a “random security check” for certain passengers or through a more detailed check of personal belongings. It is certainly acceptable for travelers to stay alert and be concerned about their security. On the other hand, it is wrong to throw racial discrimination into the mix with paranoia and fear. This kind of amalgam can only yield ignorance and hatred.

Paranoia, which leads to discrimination, may aptly explain the incident. However, it is clear that eight years after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, a general fear of demise at the hands of Muslim terrorists continues to be at the back of most American minds. The preconceived notions of what it means to be a Muslim have prevented many Americans from understanding the modern-day complexities of the religion and have resulted in misunderstanding which has caused a fear of the unknown. This fear has motivated individual acts of discrimination which, unfortunately, have even resulted in violence. The widespread use of propaganda against Islam and Muslims immediately following the 9/11 attacks has subsided, and has all but diminished throughout the media. Still, the effects of ignorance and fear linger and reflect poorly on American values and ideals.


Always On Watch said...

Reminder: Muslim is not a race.

Joe Wilmarth Tyna said...

Regarding Always On Watch's comment:
I had a similar thought while reading this posting: "Muslim is not a race".

However, I think labeling the actions of AirTran as racial profiling may be appropriate, especially if one includes both 'race' and 'ethnicity' in the definition of 'racial profiling'. It appears that a perceived minority were treated differently than a member of the majority might under similar circumstances. Assumptions based on ethnicity seem to have motivated the precautions that were implemented.