Back to Vance Gilbert and 'Flying While Black'

Thumbnail image for VanceGilbert2.jpegThree days ago I mentioned the travails of the Boston-area musician Vance Gilbert, (right, from Arlington Patch). A regional airline crew got panicked by his presence, and refused to take off, because of some combination of factors involving: his "look," his request to keep a fanny pack containing his wallet near his feet, and his interest in a book about airplanes.

A variety of readers have dissented from my (and Vance Gilbert's) assertion that race played a major role. Here is a sample. I'll save comment until the end.

One reader disagrees with my claim that this wouldn't have happened to me -- ie, another middle-aged man who likes to read aviation books but is white rather than black:

I think it's a little hasty to chalk what happened to him up to racism and say it couldn't happen to you. As I read his account, I was thinking that his general appearance ( informal attire, no clean shaven, etc.) was probably more significant than his race in motivating the actions of the airline employees.

Blacks in the US most definitely are still discriminated against, but I could easily see what happened to Mr. Gilbert happening to a white person with a similar appearance behaving the same way. Maybe I'm overestimating the paranoia of airlines and the public regarding who "might be a terrorist", and I hope I am, but I still think that what happened to Mr. Gilbert could easily happen to you or to me.

Reader RJ in California argues that race may have been part of it, but not the only part:

I'm not sure that the daemonizing of interest in airplanes is merely a side benefit.   I also suspect that were he not looking at the airplane books and/or he'd not first put the fanny pack behind his feet it would not have happened....

I am perhaps too optimistic in thinking that there were three pre-requsites here and that if any one of them were different the outcome would have been different.    To give a geeky example, if we assume a score of 50 were required to trigger the [crew's refusal to take off with Gilbert aboard] , the fanny pack being misplaced behind the feet was probably 10, the book was probably 15 and being black was probably 30.  Being Black should have been 0 (or the 5 a middle-aged white guy would get), but I doubt it was 50.  Again, perhaps I'm too optimistic.

From another reader in California, another angle:

The more general example is gender in our culture.  for 25 years I ran the same trail in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore where we live usually in the early morning or late afternoon, almost always alone.  when ever I saw a lone woman hiking the trial, really a dirt road with no vehicles, I could see her shrink slightly due to by  presence (6', 190) and never got over feeling bad about it.  I still hike the trail and still see the same reaction, but less severe. I have white hair now and moving at a fast hike seems to elicit less reaction than when running at a younger age.


We should note he was also apparently Flying While Bearded. Which makes one a Potential Muslim and automatically subject to extra scrutiny.

IF he'd rejected the token drink he'd be open to a charge of Flying While Fasting During Ramadan. Must be a law about that. Where does this end?

Eric Seymour sent the note below, which he elaborated in a post for In the Agora;

Accusations of racial profiling tend to inflame racial tensions (on both sides of the black/white divide), and therefore should not be made lightly.  I don't see any reason to believe that Mr. Gilbert's experience was in any way related to his race.  He had an item placed behind his heels (which seems rather unusual to me, and could be seen as an attempt to hide something), and was reading a book on airplanes which, as you yourself note, is regarded suspiciously in this day and age.  The crew reacted in a very conservative manner and decided it would be best to have security professionals check him out.  I would say the airline should reimburse him for his losses and offer him a free flight.  But there's nothing obviously racial in this story.

I buy the "50-point score" analysis that race made a difference but was only one of three strikes against Vance Gilbert (the others being the exchange about his bag, and his airplane book). "Misunderstandings" of this sort are vexing precisely because you can never really know what was in someone else's mind. I do know that I've often read airplane manuals or similar "suspicious" material while on an airliner, and that sometimes I've resisted putting books or bags where a flight attendant thought they should go -- and nonetheless I've never had a flight crew refuse to take off because I was there. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever had a "bag issue" on the same flight where I was reading an airplane manual, and of course I've never done either while black.  So we can't know. But it is an unfortunate episode worth reflecting on as a specimen of today's security thinking.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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