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The NAACP Call-Out of American Airlines Raises Some Big Questions

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.

Strategies aside, 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.

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?”