In these last few days as the racial tensions in Ferguson, MO have made public the simmering tensions of our culture, I’ve been thinking about an episode of the TV show, “Airline.”
In the show cameras follow Southwest Airline employees as they evaluate whether or not a passenger is too drunk to fly, deal with bags infested with ants, juggle late arrivals and thunderstorms. In this episode the conflict centers around an African American man and his fiancee. The employees are debating whether or not to deny him boarding.
What happened was this: A white woman stepped in front of him in the boarding line. She had a boarding pass for the B group and the man was at the front of the C group. He didn’t understand this distinction, and immediately demanded to know why this woman was allowed to jump in line.
I felt like I was watching hundred years of history in just a few moments. For the man, a lifetime of being treated as less than rose to the surface. “It’s not right,” he demanded. “My money is just as good as hers.” As he got angry he got loud, and as a large, loud black man he now became a threat to bystanders. The gate agents reacted and denied boarding to the couple on this flight because he was “scaring the other passengers.”
The episode made me feel very sad because everyone walked away with their fears and prejudices confirmed. For the man, it was just more evidence as to why there is no justice for a person of color. For the gate agents (and at least some of the passengers) it was a reinforcement that loud, angry black men are to be feared.
I felt sad because it was all so unnecessary. All it would have taken is to listen to one another. All the gate agent had to do was to listen to why the man was upset instead of immediately trying to shut him down. All the man had to do was to understand the system and that in fact, the woman was simply acting within the boundaries of that system.
But no one explained that. All he needed was to be heard, but everyone was too busy trying to get him to be quiet.
I don’t know what really happened in Ferguson. I know that police officers live with knowing that the next driver they stop may pull a gun on them and end their lives. I know that many African Americans live in a world I cannot imagine, a world in which boys have to be taught how not to be scary simply because of the color of their skin.
My sadness is that the conversations that didn’t happen in the airport terminal still aren’t happening. No matter what the issue, we’ve seemed to have lost any desire to listen to people whose experience is different from ours. We aren’t interested in what their lives are like, only as to how our lives will be affected. The question as to whether or not this is best for the greater good has been replaced by the question of what it will mean for me. When that’s the only question we ask, we’re in trouble.
I don’t have the answers. but I know they will not come until we can begin to listen to one another.