DALLAS – The NAACP is warning African-Americans that if they fly on American Airlines, they may face discrimination or even safety issues.
American’s CEO said Wednesday that he was disappointed by the announcement and that American wants to discuss the matter with the civil rights group.
The NAACP said that for several months it has watched a pattern of disturbing incidents reported by African-American passengers. Among them were separate cases in which an NAACP official and another civil rights activist were kicked off flights.
In an interview with the Associated Press, new NAACP President Derrick Johnson said they are not boycotting American Airlines, but the sheer numbers of events made them feel like they had to issue a warning.
“We’re not telling people not to fly on American,” he said. “We’re just saying to individuals that here is an advisory note. We have picked up a pattern of a certain behavior of this corporation and until further notice be on alert.”
American Airlines issued a statement saying that it serves customers of all backgrounds and itself has a diverse group of employees.
In a memo to employees, CEO Doug Parker said American endorses the NAACP’s mission statement against racial discrimination.
“We do not and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” Parker wrote. “We have reached out to the NAACP and are eager to meet with them to listen to their issues and concerns.”
The NAACP highlighted four recent incidents in which African-American passengers said they were treated in a discriminatory way.
One involved the head of the North Carolina NAACP, the Rev. William Barber, who sued American after the airline summoned a police officer to remove him from a flight last year.
Barber said he had asked a flight attendant to tell two white passengers behind him to quiet down, but she was dismissive. After one of the white men said loudly that he didn’t like “those people” and mocked him, Barber said he stood and turned to ask the man to stop talking about him.
Barber dropped his lawsuit against American in June.
An incident last week involved Tamika Mallory, an organizer of the Women’s March on Washington in January. Mallory had changed her seat at an airport kiosk, only to be told at the gate that the seat had been assigned to another customer.
Mallory said she was treated disrespectfully by the gate agent – another African-American woman – and was outraged when a white male pilot asked if she could control herself while on the flight.
After being told she was being kicked off the plane, Mallory called the pilot a racist in a profanity-laced exchange. She took a later flight home to New York on American, then held a press conference two days later and threatened to take legal action against the airline.
The NAACP called its warning a “travel advisory,” and it’s only the second time it has issued one. The first was against Missouri, which the organization announced in August after citing reports that African-Americans were more likely than whites to be stopped by law enforcement officers there, as well as other current and past racial issues in the state.
Derek Klaus, spokesman for Visit KC, Kansas City’s convention and visitors bureau, said the region has not seen any substantial meeting or convention cancellations as a result of the advisory. But he said in an email that Kansas City has been removed from consideration for at least four future meetings.
“Where we’re noticing an impact is in the prospecting for future business, though we maintain that Kansas City is welcoming and inclusive destination,” Klaus said.
The travel advisory is part of a new, more aggressive stance for the civil rights organization, which is in the midst of reimagining itself following the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter, which have been drawing the attention of young millennials. The group ousted its previous president, Cornell William Brooks, earlier this year and hired Johnson, the vice chair of NAACP’s board of directors, as its new president on Saturday.
While the strategy itself is new, the NAACP has employed full boycotts in the past, including most recently in North Carolina where the organization is currently urging religious conferences, athletic events and musicians to avoid the state as part of a national boycott protesting the state’s conservative policies including a law limiting LGBT protections.
This followed a 15-year economic boycott of South Carolina over the flying of the Confederate battle flag on Statehouse grounds. That boycott ended with the flag’s removal in 2015 after a white nationalist killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
Johnson would not say whether his organization would issue more travel advisories in the future.
“Our goal is to advise or warn people when we identify a pattern,” Johnson said. “It is not based on an individual incident. It is truly based on what the potential is when you have a state like Missouri that created public policy that we see as adverse to African-Americans or companies that create an atmosphere that could be adverse.”
The advisory against American comes on top of several complaints of racial discrimination lodged against airlines in recent years, particularly by Muslims, some of whom have said they were booted off flights just because other passengers felt uncomfortable around them.
Last year, a college student said he was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight and subjected to additional questioning by security officers after another passenger overheard him speaking in Arabic before takeoff. Last month, an art instructor forcibly removed from another Southwest flight said she was targeted because she is Muslim; the airline said she had claimed a life-threatening allergy to two dogs that were on the plane, but it quickly apologized for the way the situation was handled.
Airline officials are uncomfortable discussing complaints of bias, even when they believe they are unfounded. American took its time before issuing a cautious, restrained response to the NAACP charge.
Bruce Rubin, a Miami public relations professional experienced in crisis reaction, praised American’s response, including the invitation to NAACP leadership to talk. He said it was wiser than being confrontational.
The goal is “to tamp down the story instead of feeding it,” Rubin said. “There aren’t very many options when the race card gets tossed at you.”
American, based in Fort Worth, Texas, is the world’s largest airline. The NAACP describes itself as the nation’s oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization.
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