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Coming face to face with the airlines' race problem

Nov. 19, 2021
5 min read
Coming face to face with the airlines' race problem
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America has been very vocal in the past few years about race, racism and many of the challenges we continue to face as a society. While it's great that the topic continues to resonate and be discussed, there's still so much more to fix.

Related: The Points Guy releases diversity, equity and inclusion efforts

When traveling, we are often reminded of the good and bad of society in addition to the ways — intentional or not — that racism can show its ugly head.

A tale of discrimination on a Southwest flight hit home and painfully reminded me of situations I've faced as a Black woman in America — one with family members who present as white.

For those who missed it: A recent story was published about how Southwest Airlines allegedly profiled a white mother with her 10-year-old biracial child as a possible human trafficker.

While I understand that airlines are hyperaware of human trafficking — and rightly so — clearly a mistake was made here by Southwest personnel. There needs to be more common sense used before making incorrect assumptions and calling law enforcement, which tends to make a situation worse, especially when people of color are involved.

My family on Father's Day 2020. Top row: Me and my sister. Bottom row: My niece, my child and my dad. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson)

While not as extreme as the case above, I have personally experienced extra scrutiny when traveling with my 8-year-old niece, who presents as white. My family is a virtual rainbow coalition: My sister, father and niece present as white, while my mother, my child and I present as Black.

Related: TSA body scanners disproportionately target women of color, report says

On two past Southwest flights, I was flagged and asked about my niece. The first time was on a flight to Baltimore. I had just scolded my niece for running in the gate area and she cried, so a gate agent came over and asked if she was my child. I replied no, that she was my niece, which caused a look of surprise. He asked her if she knew me, and she replied, "Yes. That's my auntie Nanie." He looked at us both and walked away, with no apology.

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The second time was on a trip to Sacramento when I was questioned by a flight attendant after my niece had a small meltdown during what was a long flight. Again, my niece told her who I was after being questioned, and I showed a family photo for further proof. However, I still felt as if I was being scrutinized for the rest of the flight.

I understand that it's an easy mistake to make since Black people come in so many different shades and non-Black people can't always tell. Children 2 and older know who their parents and loved ones are, so if you ask, "Is this your [insert relationship here]?" and they reply yes, then everyone can move on -- without involving law enforcement.

A better way for airline employees to clarify those relationships would be to take a page from a guide published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway and ask questions -- before law enforcement is called. Tips to keep in mind include:

  • Be nonjudgmental and kind when questioning a child.
  • Be upfront about who you are and why you're asking questions.
  • Use age-appropriate language.

The Blue Lightning Initiative (BLI), led by the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, trains aviation personnel to identify potential traffickers and human trafficking victims. Personnel can then report their suspicions to federal law enforcement. This is a good thing.

However, we need to recognize that our country continues to become more diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau numbers released in August 2021 show that the multiracial population in almost every county in the United States grew between 2010 and 2020, showing that the U.S. population is more multiracial and more racially and ethnically diverse than ever.

That means we all need to be more aware of how people identify themselves and — more importantly — not make face-value assumptions about a person's race. We also need to end the practice of profiling passengers based solely on race and train airline employees to explain why they are asking questions and not to resort to calling law enforcement as a solution without a problem.

My advice for those who may find themselves in a similar situation? Be calm, but ask why you're being questioned. Talk to your child and explain what's going on. There is no law against taking photos or video on an airplane, so that can be an option to document what happens in case things escalate.

The truth is that we can't wave a magic wand to get a perfect solution. Racial profiling in airports and on planes isn't going away anytime soon. But a little common sense and compassion can go a long way.

Related: It happened again: Why the TSA still can’t deal with my natural hair

Featured image by The author's daughter. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Rewards Rate

5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
1.5XEarn 1.5X points on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year
1X1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

    Earn 150,000 points
    120,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.