When Muslim Advocates and the NAACP issue a joint letter accusing the U.S. airline industry of racism, it’s big news. And when the NAACP, the “nation’s oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization,” follows that up with an advisory specifically questioning the racial policies of the nation’s largest airline, American, it’s nothing less than a media firestorm. Indeed, all the major news media covered the story exhaustively. And “American Airlines” has been a trending Twitter topic for several days.
That’s where matters stood earlier this week, after the NAACP warned black travelers not to fly with American Airlines, following a series of incidents involving African-American travelers. “In light of these confrontations, we have today taken the action of issuing a national advisory alerting travelers—especially African Americans—to exercise caution, in that booking and boarding flights on American Airlines could subject them disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions.”
The advisory cited four specific incidents that were suggestive of “a corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias on the part of American Airlines.” The NAACP expressed concern that “the examples cited herein may represent only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to American Airlines’ documented mistreatment of African-American customers.”
Predictably, American disputed the charges, and has signaled its willingness to meet with NAACP representatives. In a memo to the airline’s 120,000 employees, company CEO Doug Parker addressed the issue as follows:
(W)e were disappointed to learn of a travel advisory issued by the NAACP regarding American Airlines. The mission statement of the NAACP states that it “seeks to remove all barriers of racial discrimination.” That’s a mission that the people of American Airlines endorse and facilitate every day – we do not and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind. We have reached out to the NAACP and are eager to meet with them to listen to their issues and concerns.
And so matters stand today. An accusation of bias from a noted civil rights organization. And a denial by a billion-dollar multinational company that has an enormous financial stake in being perceived as being unbiased. The media attention will persist for a week or two, bringing more heat than light to the topic, before petering out in a vacuum of new developments. And then …?
A charge of systemic racism can probably never be conclusively proved or disproved; there is no final arbiter. Whatever the underlying merits of either position, it will play out in the media, and in the court of public opinion.
Reader Reality Check
As a member of the court of public opinion, what do you think?
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.