Monday, May 9, 2011

May 9, 2011: Planes, Trains, and Americans

Two Muslim American men were removed from a flight—actually not allowed even to board the flight, at least per the story to which I’ve linked below—this weekend; the removal was due, it seems clear (and I understand that the specifics in any individual situation can be different from a published story, and that I’m using this individual situation to make a larger point which I believe holds true regardless), solely to their appearances and those appearances’ connotations. As far as I know, there are not necessarily legal ways to respond to such an action; airlines are of course private companies, and while laws like the Civil Rights Act do prohibit companies from discriminating against individuals based solely on their race or ethnicity, I have a feeling that the airline in question here would try to make a case that there were other issues or factors that precipitated their response. (Or perhaps not, and the men will successfully sue for wrongful discrimination; that’d be fine by me, but wouldn’t elide the broader issues at play here.)
Yet the situation does resonate profoundly with my AmericanStudies interests, not only for its contemporary ramifications but also because of its complicated parallels to one of our nation’s most egregiously wrong-headed legal perspectives. In 1896, a Louisiana man named Homer Plessy took all the way to the Supreme Court his legal challenge to the system of Jim Crow segregation, and more specifically to his state’s segregated railway cars; Plessy, a shoemaker who had been active in efforts to reform public education in New Orleans, was 1/8th African American (the minimum percentage as defined by Louisiana law to qualify an individual as an African American and so subject to Jim Crow law) and had in 1892 purposefully sat in a “white” train car and self-identified his racial makeup to the train’s conductor, leading to his forcible removal from that car. Plessy’s case was eloquently argued, as I noted in an earlier post, by Albion Tourgée, but the court ruled 8-1 to uphold the system of segregation, famously depending on the idea of “separate but equal” spaces for the different races as a linchpin of its arguments. Justice John Marshall Harlan was the sole dissenter, arguing eloquently for the kind of color-blind legal system for which Tourgée had likewise argued (although Harlan did employ as part of his argument profoundly discriminatory attitudes toward Chinese Americans, who were permitted by Louisiana law to ride in “white” cars, making clear just how complex and fraught issues of race have been in any and all of our national narratives).
It’s very easy, of course, to note the many differences between these situations, both those that seem comparatively to ameliorate the realities for post-9/11 Muslim Americans (there is no current set of state- or region-wide laws that produce discriminations like these; many Muslim Americans thus no doubt fly without incident every day) and those that perhaps exacerbate them for that community (there are not any separate—whether equal or otherwise—facilities or opportunities to which individuals like these two men can turn when they’re discriminated against; a significant portion of America in the 1890s was at least less aggressively discriminating against African Americans, whereas it could be argued that the nation as a whole has been in many ways united in opposition to Muslims over the last decade). To draw parallels between different time periods, different societies, different communities, different historical events is in any case a difficult and potentially dangerous task, one that can cloud our understandings of either era as much as it can help us understand both and our nation through them. Yet on the other hand, historical parallels can indeed help us better recognize and understand both national tendencies—such as our ability to section off racial or ethnic communities whom we hope to define as somehow outside of our core national identity; note not only these two but also Native American reservations and the Japanese Internment, among other examples—and what different American communities and individuals have experienced as a result of our communal and even legal actions and their effects.
As I finalize this entry, an headline informs me that a Senator (I don’t have the heart to click through and find out which one, but I can imagine the possibilities) is proposing a “Do Not Ride” list for the Amtrak system. Again, it’s easy to see how the impetus for such a proposal seems radically different from those behind the rise of Jim Crow segregation; but in some important ways that vision of difference would be inaccurate. The Black Codes that preceded and led to Jim Crow were likewise framed—as in some ways for that matter was “separate but equal”—very much as a law and order response, one that attempted to curb crime and chaos and make our communities safe for all who lived in them. But as with so many national narratives, these depended and still depend entirely on definitions of America in which those being excluded from our planes and trains are fundamentally less important than those who are not. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      Full texts of the Plessy opinion and dissent:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. I would add in, particularly in light of your last sentence, that many Americans with disabilities--especially physical disabilities--are already on an implicit "do not ride" list on many forms of public transportation. While airports may be accessible, planes are a nightmare. Separate but equal still rules, unfortunately. The accessible entry to a building is oftentimes off to the side or even around the back. It may be blocked by the janitor's equipment, etc. Many times, people with disabilities choose to travel on their own or just not travel because of the way they are treated by others--not because of their disabilties. As Americans grow older, this will be another group that will be put on the "do not ride" list, I'm afraid.

    I'll get off my soap box now. Great post.