Once More on 'Flying While Black'

The Vance Gilbert saga has provoked a torrent of mail. I won't keep quoting this indefinitely, but here is one more installment.

VanceGilbert thumb.jpg

As a reminder: in chapter one, I agreed with Gilbert's assertion that a flight crew had panicked and pulled him off a plane largely because of his race. Then, in chapter two, I quoted a number of "wait a minute, we don't really know what they were thinking" messages.

Most of what I've received since then is in the vein of: "Are you kidding? Of course this was mainly about race." A few samples below, graced by Gilbert's photo from Arlington Patch. One reader says:

>>You wrote, in your wrap up of responses to your original post on this story "'Misunderstandings'  of this sort are vexing precisely because you can never really know what was in someone else's mind."

What makes Mr. Gilbert's story both troubling and emblematic is precisely because what happened to him has little to do with "what was in someone else's mind." The assessments and judgments we make are attributable at least as much to the limbic brain as they are the cerebral cortex (we'll assume for this discussion that's where the "mind" is).

In other words, the "three strikes" are not cumulative, they are interactive, at least. A white man reading a book about planes isn't (white + book + planes + man). It's more like "egghead reading instead of watching the tube tall good-looking clean shaven wedding ring (guess) maybe he works for Piper cool glasses reminds me a bit of my cousin's husband nice shoes."

Put another way, a white man who refuses to follow the suggestions/orders of flight crew about where to put stuff is not just a black man refusing to following the suggestions/orders of flight crew about where to put stuff minus the blackness. Black refusal is black before it's refusal and black refusal before sitting quietly and minding his own business reading a book.

The whiteness of you isn't just not-blackness -- it's an entire set of assumptions and prejudices that mostly count in your favor in terms of the default switch being set to "not a threat." Similarly, Mr. Gilbert's blackness isn't just not-whiteness, it's an entire set of assumptions and prejudices that mostly count against him, unless countered by mild to strong counterweight.

So, black + book + planes +man might be "he can read? no shit?" or "I don't know anyone black who can afford a plane scruffy kinda fat dorky shoes." or ...

And these scripts will vary depending on the race and personal histories of the people making the judgments, of course. I've drafted them assuming everyone making the assessment that Mr. Gilbert was a threat was white. I doubt that's true, given the current demographics of TSA, airline personnel, etc. Revise accordingly... <<

A few more after the jump.

From another reader:

>>This entire incident has me upset on many different levels.I'm frustrated at the paranoia that makes it seem reasonable to put up with such nonsense when we travel.I'm concerned about the fact that many people seem to dismiss Vance's assertion that his skin color played a part in the events.  I don't necessarily expect everyone to accept what he states without thought.I wish, however, that there were fewer people simply dismissing the possibility out of hand as if "these things" don't happen any more.

Is there "proof" that skin color affected the choice made?  As the n-word is used more infrequently and cross-burning and hoods are out of favor (thank goodness), behaviors become more subtle.  I cannot prove that skin color played a part because I was not privy to the thoughts of those involved.  However, neither were all the people who claim to know Vance is "too sensitive," "has a chip on his shoulder," or "is playing the race card."

The unfortunate reality is that we still live in a society where people make decisions every, single day that ARE influenced by the color of a person's skin. The white woman who recently asked how much she should tip the skycaps since "the black men seem to have been replaced by white college kids." The middle class parent who had never made a racist/prejudiced statement to me before who states that she has chosen to move to a different school district "so the girls won't decide to date black boys." The co-worker who intimates that the black staff members don't work as hard as others "because, well, you know, they are just lazy." So while not one of us is privy to the thoughts of those involved, eliminating race as a factor is shutting one's eyes to a truth in our society. The "race card" is a reality that people have to live with their entire lives. If you are a black person, things happen to you and around you because your skin color. Of course, every bad thing that happens to people with brown skin is not due to skin color.However, it is an additional filter through which groups of people who have been discriminated against must view the world. I wish this weren't true, but it is a truth we ignore at our peril.<<


>>We camped next to Vance Gilbert at a three-day folk/dance festival about ten years ago and I was struck by how easy-going and gentle his manner was.

What seems missing in all of the comments so far is the need for a little imagination on the part of the airline crew. (What DO they learn at flight attendant school?) A friendly inquiry by a flight attendant - "are you involved in the airline business?" could have clarified and defused the whole situation. Or Mr. Gilbert could have moved his wallet to his backpack at his feet and complied with the request to stow the fanny pack. Instead, giving in to fear and assuming the worst - without trying to confirm anything - leads to an unhappy situation for everyone. I've seen airline crews deal quite gracefully with passengers who drank too much - which seems much more challenging than coping with the Gilbert scenario.<<


>>I read through Vance Gilbert's account with a sense of visceral outrage. Outrage made all the more incandescent by my own related experience.

In 2006, in my mid to early thirties, I began training for a private pilot's certificate. At about the same time my normally office-bound job briefly required a significant amount of travel. Each trip interfered with my training schedule. To compensate I brought my VFR sectional charts, FAA publications including the Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and the Airplane Flying Handbook, Jeppesen study materials, and other paraphernalia of the student pilot on my trips. I read books on flying - real, how-to type books - in airport waiting areas, on airplanes, in my hotel rooms. I tried to match landmarks visible through plane windows to the sectionals. I planned VFR flights, marking up my sectionals with a plastic plotter/protractor. [JF note: All this could describe me.] I probabley mumbled practice radio calls to myself. No flight attendant even blinked at what I was doing. Nobody in any airport lounge ever complained. I was never escorted off a plane, or questioned, or publicly humiliated.

I believe race was a significant source of the difference between my experience and Mr. Gilbert's, and that leaves me literally heartsick. I was a 230ish pound six foot tall male. I was, especially on return trips, not particularly tidy or clean shaven - when a three day jaunt turns into a two week slog you stop caring how you look on the ride home. I am white. Given the parallels it's hard for me to believe that racism, either conscious or unconscious, wasn't a factor.

I also think the question of whether race contributed to this incident misses a significant point. Nobody should be subjected to that type of treatment. Nobody. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This would not have been more acceptable if experienced by a twelve year old white girl or a twenty six year old Arab male. Peacefully reading a book is not probable cause to suspect a crime. Racism may have caused Mr. Gilbert to be singled out, but it was not the source of the harm. The harm came from handing out power with effectively zero oversight. The flight attendants and others who triggered this event are unlikely to see any negative consequences. Everyone will dismiss the harm with a, "better safe than sorry," but at the end of the day are we really safe? How safe are we when an innocent interaction with a flight attendant can cause this sort of response? When anonymous suspicion can cause a response with the potential for real harm that Mr. Gilbert faced?<<


>>Really I fly a lot too. Even when I get "grumpy" and I a, Semitic looking, man over 220 lbs (sigh). And 6" 2". Yes, never read an airplane book but have caused "problems" when things were going wrong. Remember I am a consumer activist. Never has it given me a second thought as being profiled or having security called.

I think the 50 points go 100% to being black in the sense that it was a necessary factor to the out come. Maybe not sufficient as a sole factor.<<

Thanks to readers for weighing in. Judge for yourself. I know what rings true to me. The impending 9/11 anniversary is an occasion for reflecting on what ten years of security-state thinking have done to us, when overlaid on preexisting strains in our society.

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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.

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