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raceAhead: The NAACP Calls Out American Airlines, Issa Rae’s Empire Grows, Kaepernick Gets a Book Deal

October 25, 2017, 6:53 PM UTC

On Tuesday, the NAACP issued a strongly worded travel advisory warning African Americans to consider their safety and dignity when traveling on American Airlines.

“The NAACP for several months now has been monitoring a pattern of disturbing incidents reported by African-American passengers, specific to American Airlines,” the advisory begins. They identify a “series of recent incidents involve troublesome conduct by American Airlines and they suggest a corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias on the part of American Airlines.”

They cited four incidents:

  1. An African-American man was required to relinquish his purchased seats aboard a flight from Washington, D.C. to Raleigh-Durham, merely because he responded to disrespectful and discriminatory comments directed toward him by two unruly white passengers;

  2. Despite having previously booked first-class tickets for herself and a traveling companion, an African-American woman’s seating assignment was switched to the coach section at the ticket counter, while her white companion remained assigned to a first-class seat;

  3. On a flight bound for New York from Miami, the pilot directed that an African-American woman be removed from the flight when she complained to the gate agent about having her seating assignment changed without her consent; and

  4. An African-American woman and her infant child were removed from a flight from Atlanta to New York City when the woman (incidentally a Harvard Law School student) asked that her stroller be retrieved from checked baggage before she would disembark.

According to CNN Money, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said he was “disappointed” in the news, in a memo to staff that was later released to reporters. “We fly over borders, walls and stereotypes to connect people from different races, religions, nationalities, economic backgrounds and sexual orientations,” Parker said. “We do not and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”

There seems to be a strategy in play. In August, the NAACP issued their first-ever travel advisory saying that people of color, women, people who identify as LGBTQ, and those with disabilities should “travel with extreme caution” within the state of Missouri because “they may not be safe.”

The statement was a response in part to recent legislation signed into law that makes it more difficult to sue over housing or employment discrimination. Says Cheryl Clay, Springfield’s NAACP president, “Our ongoing issues of racial profiling, discrimination, harassment and excess violence towards people of color have been further exacerbated by the passage and signing of [Senate Bill] 43. [It] rolls back civil rights protections for employees and whistleblowers.” While testifying on the House version of the same bill, the committee chairman shut off the microphone of one NAACP member who called it, “nothing but Jim Crow.”

But the NAACP also criticized the state for data released in May by Missouri’s Attorney General showing that African-American drivers were 75 percent more likely to be pulled over by law enforcement than white drivers during 2016.

I’ve emailed the NAACP for commentary. I’ll update this column if I hear back.

Here’s how things seem to work these days. Some additional stories from AA passengers and staff of color will emerge. A nasty backlash, perhaps fueled by a familiar and expert troll, will be amplified. Maybe there’ll be an Oval Office tweet. The company will investigate. New programs put in place. We’ll all check competitor’s stock prices. Next year, a hip creative team will win an award for an edgy and inclusive ad campaign that directly references the issue. Meanwhile, we’ll white-knuckle our way through yet another #MAGA Thanksgiving, unwilling or unable to talk about the big issues facing the world with our loved ones. It’s just too … risky.

It’s hard to see where lasting change can happen in business without enlisting the help of the entire culture.

As you ponder how you’d handle a NAACP advisory if one ever came your way, consider Jamil Smith’s excellent essay on the dismissal of black pain in service of white resentment, and The Information’s report on a new survey that shows that gender diversity is so irrelevant for many board members, they won’t even respond to questions about it. Both items are linked below.

It’s clear there is a lot of work left to do.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. (That, of course, is a lie.) But consider where we are in the history of business – a micro-era in which a new revelation about egregious executive misbehavior toward vulnerable persons is published daily, followed by the equally stunning declaration – “everybody knew.”

That seems to get us closer to the heart of the matter. Maybe the question shouldn’t simply be, “What did they know and when did they know it?” Maybe the existential follow-up should be, “What do we think we know about the world that allows us to treat each other this way?”

On Point

Corporate boards are staying silent on sexual harassmentThe Information, the subscriber-supported technology sector publication, has published a broad survey of 600 corporate board members asking for their assessment of how they handle gender bias and harassment issues. The big reveal: Only 23% of company boards have discussed sexual harassment or gender discrimination, and only 12% of boards have taken any action to address issues in their companies. Click through for the details, but here’s another data point. While the original survey was sent to 3,000 board members, only 600 responded and some 80% of those who did were women. Among the reasons the women didn’t bring up the issue themselves were that “board members are men,” there was “an understanding from the top” that gender issues weren’t a priority, and the conversation wouldn’t be “well received.” (Registration required.)The Information

Issa Rae inks a new development deal with HBO
The third season of her hit series Insecure is already in the works, but the multi-tasking talent is taking on a new project. Rae is set to executive produce a drama set in 1990s Los Angeles, focused on an African American family – one parent a rising star in real estate, the other a conflicted LAPD anti-gang task force recruit. National Book Award finalist and "The Turner House" author Angela Flournoy has signed on to write and produce.  The post-Reagan, pre-Clinton years were tough, for some more than others. Should be interesting. 

Colin Kaepernick signs a seven-figure book deal
Details remain sparse, but the million-dollar future author will have plenty of material to draw from. In addition to donating money to various social justice causes, Kaepernick has been getting hands-on experience working with his Know Your Rights campaign, crisscrossing the country talking about activism and justice work with students from underserved communities.
Sports Illustrated

A noose was found hanging in the locker room at the Metropolitan Opera
The resurgence of the hangman’s noose, a menacing symbol designed to instill racial terror, continues. This time, it was found hanging from a pipe in the locker room at one of NY’s most beloved cultural institutions. It was discovered right before the performance was about to begin. (It was Puccini’s “Turnadot” if you’re looking for meaning in the madness.) Police are investigating.
New York Daily News

The Woke Leader

On white anger and black pain
Jamil Smith has written a searing essay exploring the increasing expressions of “white rage” and links them to the unseemly events surrounding the treatment of two grieving black women, Myeshia Johnson, widow of slain Sgt. La David Johnson and Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), their close family friend. Why would the president and his administration choose this moment to call these women liars? Smith deftly weaves the centering of white resentment with the long history of contempt for black suffering and the political expediency of amplifying both at this moment in time. “The act of not believing black folks or performing confusion about our anger has social currency as well,” he says. “Even when we’re talking about a pregnant military widow, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire American story.”
Washington Post

A MacArthur genius wants to know what dreams may come for AI
His quest sounds as quixotic as the technology itself. What do computers see when they watch us? What goes on in their automated brains? Or as artist Trevor Paglen puts it, “What does the inside of the cloud look like?” The MacArthur grant recipient's latest installation displays images that researchers used to train vision algorithms and explores the processes by which machines were taught to recognize landscapes, people, and gestures. There is even some dreamy artwork created by the machines themselves. His work reminds us that we know so little about the machines that now dominate our lives. Did you know that the first image of a woman used by researchers to teach computers to recognize women was an image of Miss November scanned from a 1972 Playboy magazine? And that it’s now one of the most widely used images in computer-vision research? No? Well, the more you know.

Where will the people in the talent pipeline live in the future?
A new report from Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage finance arm, raises more questions than it answers. First the bad news: The number of apartments that are affordable for very low-income families in the U.S. fell by more than 60 percent between 2010 and 2016.“We have a rapidly diminishing supply of affordable housing, with rent growth outstripping income growth in most major metro areas,” said David Brickman, an executive vice president at the agency. Government subsidies are disappearing, he says. And now the even worse news: The housing stock is not coming back. Absent some major intervention by the government, there will be virtually no incentive for developers to invest in the lower end of the market, another researcher says.
Denver Post

The first black pilot employed by Southwest was hired on in 1980
And that may be the least interesting thing about Louis Freeman, who retired just shy of his 65th birthday this summer. The Air Force veteran also went on to become the first black chief pilot, which is a management job. “I had to be perfect because I wanted them to hire more of us,” he told USA Today. But his most memorable flight was when he piloted the plane which carried the body of Rosa Parks to her funeral — the NAACP had specifically asked for an all-black crew. Click through for a delightful short video about his career and final flight.
USA Today


I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.
—Bessie Coleman