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The NAACP warns black travelers against flying with American Airlines

But the organization's latest travel advisory is about more than that.


Bruce Bennett/Getty Images News

The NAACP has some advice for black travelers: Be careful when flying American Airlines.

The civil rights organization issued an advisory Tuesday cautioning black flyers “that booking and boarding flights on American Airlines could subject them [to] disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions.”

The NAACP advisory argues that black travelers flying American have dealt with a disproportionate range of mistreatment including unexpected seat changes, being removed from flights, or being placed in uncomfortable situations.

The organization cites a handful of examples, including one first reported by the Root where a black woman who purchased first-class tickets for herself and a friend was suddenly switched to coach seating when she arrived at the ticket counter. Her friend, who is white, was allowed to keep her first-class seat. In another example picked up by the New York Daily News, a black mother and her 4-year-old daughter were removed from a flight from Atlanta to New York after the woman requested that her daughter's stroller (which had been checked in to the flight at the gate) be returned during a long flight delay.

The advisory also cites two incidents that, while they are not referred to by name, involve high-profile black activists who have reported negative experiences with the airline. In one, former North Carolina NAACP leader Rev. William Barber was removed from a flight from Washington, DC, to Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina after he responded to two passengers making disrespectful remarks. In the other, activist and Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory was removed from a plane after a dispute over a seating reassignment. In another incident, not cited in the NAACP’s report, police were called after Symone Sanders, a CNN political commentator and former press secretary for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, complained to a customer service representative while trying to check her luggage.

The incidents have led several people to come forward with their own complaints, fueling the belief that American Airlines is a prominent offender when it comes to the mistreatment of those who are #FlyingWhileBlack.

In a statement released after the NAACP announced the advisory, American said it was "committed to having a meaningful dialogue about our airline and are ready to both listen and engage." A spokesperson said the airline plans to invite members of the NAACP to a meeting at its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.

The NAACP’s statement claims that the cited incidents are just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the treatment of black people by American Airlines. According to the Washington Post, the organization is also encouraging people to report similar incidents on other airlines. Still, the NAACP’s move is part of a larger effort to revitalize itself as a new generation of black activists has exercised its own clout without the sole backing of the century-old organization.

The advisory isn’t the NAACP’s first, but it suggests a new tactic for an organization looking for a reset

The American Airlines advisory isn’t the first of its kind by the NAACP. In June, the Missouri chapter of the organization issued a travel advisory for African Americans traveling to the state due to the mistreatment of black people by law enforcement and the passage of a bill that would make it harder for terminated workers to successfully argue that bias contributed to their firing. The advisory was later supported by the national NAACP, becoming the first time that the organization took such a stance against a state.

With this second advisory, the NAACP’s actions seem to suggest that the tactic could become a more prominent part of the organization’s playbook as the group seeks to revitalize itself in the Trump era.

The NAACP’s national board of directors ousted its most recent president, Cornell William Brooks, in May, telling the New York Times that it wanted to pursue a “systemwide refresh” in the hopes of better responding to the current political moment. In June, Derrick Johnson, a longtime member and former vice chair for the group’s board of directors, was named interim president and CEO, an appointment that became permanent last week.

The country’s oldest civil rights group has often been painted as out of touch, especially compared with younger groups like the Black Lives Matter Network or the Black Youth Project 100. Some pundits, such as political commentator and Wake Forest professor Melissa Harris-Perry, have said that the group needs to become more radical or risk becoming irrelevant. Johnson has promised to push the organization forward during his tenure, and the two recent advisories, both issued under Johnson’s watch, could be one way for the NAACP to combat its image as the elder statesman resting on the work done in years past.

For now, Johnson says the goal isn’t quite that lofty. “Our goal is to advise or warn people when we identify a pattern," he said in an interview with the Associated Press, noting that the focus is on identifying policies and practices that are “adverse” to African Americans. "It is not based on an individual incident.”

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