Recent events on a Delta Airlines flight highlight the need for the United States Department of Transportation to immediately address the inconsistent and discriminatory removal of Muslims, persons of color, or those perceived to be either from flights. We applaud Delta customers who spoke out on social media to demand answers and Delta’s swift action to address the situation. However, within the past six months alone, at least twelve racial and religious profiling incidents have been reported, including six since April 1, 2016. Passengers have recently been removed from flights for, among other reasons, speaking Arabic, completing a math equation, or “staring at” a flight attendant.
Over the past several months, the Legal Defense Fund has been pressing the Department of Transportation to act immediately to ensure that all individuals are free to travel regardless of their race or religion. In May, the Legal Defense Fund and Muslim Advocates sent a letter to the Department expressing concern regarding the rise in incidents of racial and religious profiling and asking the Department to take immediate action. We are gratified that the Department invited LDF and advocates to meet and look forward to the imminent release of guidance from the agency to assist airlines in creating uniform procedures to address these issues.
Meanwhile, passengers not appearing to be Muslim or of color, have been allowed to remain on board and travel despite having engaged in openly-hostile and threatening behavior. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, passengers traveling on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Allentown, Pennsylvania, recorded a man, who appeared to be white, standing and yelling at other passengers before takeoff, referring to them as “Hillary bitches” and “every goddamn one of you.” Airline officials allowed the individual to retain his seat on the flight and travel, but have since admitted that he should have been removed from the flight. Video of the incident is available here.
“There is no excuse for airline officials removing a woman simply because she is speaking Arabic, while letting travel a man who stands and yells obscenities at female passengers,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “Airlines should not contribute to the increasing xenophobic and Islamophobic environment by applying misguided policies in an inconsistent manner.”
The Department has taken recent action to ensure that consumers may be able to track the results of complaints filed with the Department regarding racial and religious discrimination on airlines. However, the Department must go further. The Department must issue revised guidance making clear that it is inappropriate to remove or interrogate any individual merely because staff or other passengers express concern based on the individual’s race, religion, or nationality. Additionally, the Department must ensure that all airlines staff receive annual anti-discrimination training, thereby preventing these incidents from continuing to occur.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.