Same old story

It is amazing to me that five years after 9/11 the airlines STILL don’t have their acts together in preventing racial discrimination by their aircraft crews. The latest comes from the Bay Area:

A Muslim father and son from Hayward filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation this week, accusing airline attendants of booting them off a flight because of their appearance.

Fazal Khan, 59, and his son, Mohammed Khan, 28, boarded a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland on Jan. 31 wearing traditional South Asian tunics, white skullcaps and loose trousers. Both men also have long beards

[Shirin Sinnar of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco] said the Khans do not know of anything, other than their attire, that could have agitated the female flight attendant, who apparently expressed concern to the terminal crew about their presence.

“When they got on the plane, she helped them with their bags. That was their only interaction,” Sinnar said.

Sinnar said the two men boarded the flight with no problems. They had been sitting on the plane for about an hour before they were ejected.

Mohammed Khan was sleeping and sometimes reading the Quran, she said, while the father was relaxing awake. They were heading back to Oakland International Airport from a trip visiting family members.

The plane eventually moved down the runway but returned to the terminal as airplane staff announced mechanical difficulties, Sinnar said.

An airline customer service representative walked onto the plane and asked the Khans to bring their carry-on handbags with them and return to the airport terminal, Sinnar said. [Link]

Next comes the most incomprehensible part. You would think that two people that aroused enough suspicion to be kicked off a flight would at least have their bags removed from cargo. Not so in this case. The Khans were placed on the next flight to San Francisco but their bags (minus carry-on) continued on to Oakland aboard the original aircraft:

After escorting them out, the representative was “sympathetic” but said they could not return because the flight attendant was not comfortable with them on board, Sinnar said…

“The strange thing is no one took the bags off the first flight,” Sinnar said. “If there was any thought they were a security risk, certainly their bags should have been removed…” [Link]

Straight-up racial discrimination. The father and son say they were humiliated and will be suing Utah-based SkyWest who were responsible for staff on the aircraft.

See related post: Fear of flying

79 thoughts on “Same old story

  1. Jai,

    Thanx for sharing the personal story. This is what I was talking about. It’s very easy to shun people, call them racist and push aside any such behavior and I’m surprised that so far that seems to be what’s happening here with very little room for an alternate view of why it’s happening and an understanding of it.

    I would have never noticed anyone before 9/11 period, white, brown, green, purple nobody. I feel like a Pavlovian dog some days for what 9/11 did to me. And I resent anyone implying that I was a bigot anyway and simply looking for excuses now to act it. I question my judgement every single time I have such an experience and feel guilty about it and don’t ever really act on it. But it exists and I can’t make it go away. And it DID NOT before 9/11.

    If I a brown person can feel this way and I consider myself culturally aware and able to tell the difference between people imagine someone ignorant from the middle of nowhere America.

  2. anyway, not just statistics, but also differences between muslim and non-muslim browns. it isn’t that hard to pick out muslims by name…some of the false positives are just retarded. but, like i said, if you fire retarded and biased people, you probably fire 75% of the workforce.

    You dont have to, you have to fire people who jump on their impulses….the other people will have a heuristic model of what not to do or they risk loosing their jobs. The screeners are the ones who have to do things like these,since most people dont buy tickets on the spot chances are that their background had already been checked at superficial level using a sw tool.

  3. no way does a person not have the option of not being scared when its not rational. ok…maybe your heart races for a second, or you wonder. but after that it takes a concious decision to continue to enact out a prejudice against someone. often a person acting on a fear-based prejudice is having a bad day and is taking it out on the first viable candidate. think about how you have reacted to similiar situations. the fact that 9/10 people don’t take several related steps to act out irrational fears in sequence means its a choice people make to make other people’s lives just a little bit worse. lets not get all complex about a situation that isn’t. The article I think Cic alluded to in Salon, there was a good rejoinder published by Salon’s resident airline expert (why they have one I don’t know). Read that.

  4. Jai if you saw 15 Sikh men from Jullndher chilling in the airport and they all got in a line and said Kiddhaaa! to the person they were picking up, would you be freaked? Or would you wonder where the bhangra party was going to be later that night? A person can have fears about anyone, you can start to wonder about a cousin or friend. Is he trying to get with my girl? Does he really make more money than me? Lets not coddle basically irrational fears as if they have some grand meaning. Next thing you know we’ll be saying, you know what….when I eat mexican food I always fear i’ll have the runs, so now I just never, ever, ever step into a resteraunt selling fajitas without trembling in fear as to the integrity of my bowels

  5. I really wonder whether some people even care about the distinction between a South Asian Hindu and a Sikh or a Muslim

    totally. I was in a bar with a group of my cousins. We’re as “american” acting as could be, but as a mixed lot, some of us wear beards, some of us have afros. We were approached by as group of drunk people who called as afghanis. We explained we were all from the US, and born here, and from India. The fact was, these guys were drunk and wanted to be macho. No amount of convincing them we were not afghan was going to do a single thing. They had decided our two groups of people were going to fight the minute they called walked toward us. What was said after that was meaningless. You really think they had a “fear” of us? If so, they could have moved to another area. As a rule we don’t really feel the need to make other people scared of us, as we’re pretty happy with hanging out with each other.

    We can talk all we want about how we live in a changed world, but that scenario was no different than what would have happened in 1994. Some people are ignorant on purpose

  6. dudette,

    i would totally make by gramps wear jeans, i love soccer cap, a gap t-shirt, and brikenstocks, with a ipod full of tony benett and sinatra, and the newest ann rice.. i dont care if he doesnt like it, atleast they wouldnt hassle the guy…

    same thing happened to my grandfather. he was told to open his suitcase. He was in his 80′s with a lot of trouble walking

    sorry to post so often. will stop now

  7. Sahej,

    Jai if you saw 15 Sikh men from Jullndher chilling in the airport and they all got in a line and said Kiddhaaa! to the person they were picking up, would you be freaked?

    I said the fears of other people were understandable, not acceptable or appropriate. I fully believe and support the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”. With regards to your example above, I get your point, but if there was (hypothetically) a terrorist campaign underway against the West by some India-based Sikh group, there were militant Sikh groups here in the UK who had openly stated that their aim was to impose Sikhism on the rest of the population by force, Sikhs had crashed hijacked passenger jets into the World Trade Centre and had also blown up fellow British citizens on the London Underground…..And there were then 15 Sikhs dressed as Nihangs in Heathrow Airport who suddenly started singing “Raj Karega Khalsa” etc loudly and in unison while collecting some Sikh dignitary…..

    Then yes, the freaked-out reaction of everyone else in the airport would be understandable. Not necessarily appropriate, of course, but certainly understandable considering both local and global (hypothetical) events.

  8. I would have never noticed anyone before 9/11 period, white, brown, green, purple nobody. I feel like a Pavlovian dog some days for what 9/11 did to me. And I resent anyone implying that I was a bigot anyway and simply looking for excuses now to act it. I question my judgement every single time I have such an experience and feel guilty about it and don’t ever really act on it. But it exists and I can’t make it go away. And it DID NOT before 9/11.
    I sat across from 2 middle eastern men on the LIRR a week ago. Despite all my might to block out the “stop being a ridiculous racist American” feelings I couldn’t help but feel apprehensive about them. They had backpacks, were sweating up a storm and speaking in Arabic in hushed tones.

    And yet the 7/7 attackers weren’t Arabs, they were Pakistanis and then Africans. Do you feel equally apprehensive when you see a bunch of desi men together speaking in Punjabi? Or how about the Africans on the train?

    I’m not accusing you of being a bit. I am pointing out that your fears of a train attack are not triggered by the people who attack trains and I’m wondering why not?

    What will change things for you, JOAT, is when you’ve been on the other side or known somebody who has. When you’ve had somebody call the police on you for completely innocuous behavior, and you realize that you’re guilty until proven innocent, and that these days due process can be circumvented, and you can vanish without habeas corpus for an extended period of time.

    I’ve been aware of terrorism for a while. I lost somebody in the Lockerbie bombing. I’m from NYC, and knew many people who worked in and around the WTC. A relative was recently injured in a bomb in a Delhi movie theater. Heck, if you want to go further back, my uncle in London was nearly caught in an IRA bomb ages ago. It’s a very real thing to me. But for all that, I’m far more afraid of and at far greater threat from people’s knee-jerk reactions to my appearance. That changes things.

  9. sorry….

    there’s no reason to suggest a desi is any more or less able to be be prejudiced or not prejudiced compared to a midwestern born and bred person. i’m sure we all know many, many midwestern, western, eastern, and southern americans who are decent as the day is long. this whole affair speaks to baboon behavior. we can all throw crap at each other from zoo cages too if we all get the notion someday

  10. Jai,

    I get what you’re saying, but thats not similiar to this scenario. Its the worst excess of PC-culture to deny that people have a range of different emotions, including irrational fear. I agree with you on that, and I think everyone has the capacity for such fear . But I think the frame here is limited. I don’t know if we have to enter aiports or bus stations with the idea that violence is imminent. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who is scared. Its group think however, and as group-think, it matters what we think within a group.

    I totally agree with you as to there are scenarios if anyone’s mind that will make them scared. There is though a point at which there is the possibility of intervention so the response to that fear is modulated. Human societies have diverse ways of dealing with fear. And it seems to me the way of dealing with fear in this example is not one I’d like to see replicated.

  11. First of all this is a sad incident, racial/ethnic profiling, case shut. Lets hope that flight attendant gets her ass fired. Having said that, there’s a parallel instance of racial profiling going on in some of these posts – the redneck remarks and all. Some of you are assuming that the flight attendant was white. I’ve seen other races show equal if not greater prejudice when it comes to Muslims, middle eastern looking and brown skinned people. So without knowing all the facts, lets not simply go off on the white people.

  12. I wonder how many unreported incidents of discrimination such as this happen across the country. Couple of my friends were ejected from American Airlines because they were “sweating”. Despicable to say the least. I would love to be in such a situation for the grim satisfaction of chewing someone’s ass off.

  13. Couple of my friends were ejected from American Airlines because they were “sweating”.

    Aaah, the pre-9/11 days; how free were we!! I always used to make it to the airport like 15 mins before flight departure (or less, i actually started timing it and my record was, like 8 mins before take off) then rush through checkin etc and get on the plane panting, heaving (and sweating, of course). The “worst” reaction ive had during all those times were the stewardess asking me if i needed some water…

  14. Bah, I was interrogated for 4 hours at IAH in November, despite being a green card holder and a Canadian citizen. My crime apparently was that I had just spent 3 months in Pakistan. Apparently the alcohol on my breath and the Salman Rushdie book in my hand weren’t enough to dismiss me as a terrorist suspect, and I had to endure whats called a “threat assessment”. I was surprised because one of the officers was actually civil and was very knowledgeable of the different sects of Islam, when I was trying to explain that I came from the most liberal sect (Ismailis). After the interview he was very nice and even remarked “If you’re ever at IAH and have a long stopover, just come on over and tell the front desk that you want to talk to the guys in the back – I’d love to just talk to you in general”

  15. Oh yes, I forgot – I was also asked a very unexpected question – “have you ever considered working for the US government in an agency capacity?” That was a pleasant surprise.

  16. Apparently the alcohol on my breath and the Salman Rushdie book in my hand weren’t enough to dismiss me as a terrorist suspect, and I had to endure whats called a “threat assessment”.

    well, if they were smart, they know that drinking and reading rushdie what you would to slip under the radar! :)

    though serioulsy, on my blog i posted something quick about this and one commentor noted that people are still scared of bats and snakes though squirrels are much higher public health risk. what we’re dealing with are issues of bats and snakes. of course, many people have pet snakes now….

  17. They were smart – some of the 9/11 hijackers were drinking at a strip club the night before. Like I said, using obvious proxies of islamic devotion would not have caught these guys, they were instructed to blend in and act secular.

  18. a fellow human should not be compared to rats and snakes without some kind of qualification. you can’t understand the motivation of a rat, you can’t speak with it, you can’t fully relate a rat’s behavior with your own, and many people feel no qualms about killing rats with pesticides. the commentator may have some kind of point, but comparing the fear humans have of rats with the fear some people have of other human beings is not going to persuade many different minded people about that point. In fact it reinforces the idea that there is something deeply off about justifying fear as actionable

  19. um, but, maybe its just me, but all this talk of probablility and rational choices etc may have little to do with peoples everyday lives. i serously doubt that the air staff stood there, for the hour interim between when they got on the plane and when they got escorted off, and did a quick probablility model or analysis, and afetr talking over with the other phd holders on staff, decided it was worth chucking them, but not their luggage in the hold.

    holy crap, this would have been the best way for any one to do harm, dress scary to the bigots, get urself, but not ur luggage thrown off, and heck, u dont even have to risk ur own hide.

    my point is, this talk of probablilities have little to do with most peoples everyday lives.

  20. we have nothing to fear but fear itself. which we should really fear. fear. i’m so afraid. help me, i’m afraid. daddy, save me

  21. my point is, this talk of probablilities have little to do with most peoples everyday lives.

    not true. the problem is that humans have intuitive probability which doesn’t really gel with mathematical probability, eg., “the gambler’s fallacy” and the “law of small numbers.” see inevitable illusions: how mistakes of reason rule our minds or judgment under uncertainty : heuristics and biases. contrary to a previous poster, rats can tell us a lot of human ways of thinking, skinnerian behaviorism was in fact overthrown in large part via a series of surprising experiments with rats.

  22. here is my issue, some people posit:

    culture(individual) = set of behaviors

    i think we benefit from:

    culture(mind(individual)) = set of behaviors

    in other words, culture operates upon the preexistent biases of the human mind to generate a set of probable behaviors. to scale a mountain or construct a bridge across a canyon you need to know the lay of the land and the general topography. viewing everything to a purely culturalist lens is like using a political map only, when you need a physical relief map as well, because the political boundaries tend to follow and be constrained by physical features.

  23. razib,

    you seem to be saying in that set-up — culture(mind(individual)) — that the reaction of fear is too strong to behave in a way other than how the airline stewardess in this story behaves. That’s the issue I have with your statement, not that people don’t act based on the most likely probabilities. That seems relatively not controversial.

    Anyway, SM has been getting a bit harsh and I’d like to see the mood lighten

  24. that the reaction of fear is too strong to behave in a way other than how the airline stewardess in this story behaves.

    no. there is variance around the expectation (i’m not thinking deterministically).

  25. Ennis with all due respect…

    And yet the 7/7 attackers weren’t Arabs, they were Pakistanis and then Africans. Do you feel equally apprehensive when you see a bunch of desi men together speaking in Punjabi? Or how about the Africans on the train?

    The guys on the trains were black arabs meaning they weren’t desi looking brown arabs. I’ve traveled in and out of the middle east for 20 years and am aware that “potential” terrorists can be from anywhere. I understand the difference between African, middle eastern, far eastern and south asian muslims.

    I’m not accusing you of being a bit. I am pointing out that your fears of a train attack are not triggered by the people who attack trains and I’m wondering why not?

    My fears were just general behavior I feel like I’ve been bombarded emotionally to believe as being suspicous. It isn’t about planes or trains. I didn’t act on it. I justified it as normal behavior but my first instinct was otherwise. I went thru Sept 11 and lost two friends and nearly lost my brother. It is what has shaped me. It isn’t some excuse, it is simply the truth.

    What will change things for you, JOAT, is when you’ve been on the other side or known somebody who has. When you’ve had somebody call the police on you for completely innocuous behavior, and you realize that you’re guilty until proven innocent, and that these days due process can be circumvented, and you can vanish without habeas corpus for an extended period of time.

    I have been slightly on the other side. I was attacked by two women on the LIRR as a matter of fact in the spring of 2002. They were acting out on spite and hate and prejudice and I was told to go back to my country and stop bombing America! My crime? I was speaking in gujarati with another friend on the train and I look about as non traditional as one can be. My ear was nearly torn off and I suffered a concussion. When the train pulled up at the next stop there were about 100 cops waiting for us. It was ugly and it freaked me out. I only didn’t hit the woman back because she was as old as my mother and I believe very strongly that my anger was enough to have ended her in the hospital severely injured. I did not act on it. I defended myself, I did not attack her back.

    Another friend’s father was deported back to Ludhiana after living in this country for over a decade. He was at the immigration detention center for 3 months. His crime was that he was careless in renewing his GC and it had recently expired. He was treated as a terrorist. It was very painful for many of us.

    My point is I didn’t act on these fears and know better and I have not acted on it but I have experienced the initial apprehension that I feel upon seeing certain kinds of people. But if I a brown woman can feel this I can only imagine what it is like for someone culturally unaware. I am not trying to justify the behavior but trying to speak to the “dismissing it as biggotted behavior”.

  26. Applause for Razib on this thread.

    I remember reading a 2002 news article that the highest number of Osama sightings had been reported in Utah…