Earlier today, the ACLU reached an agreement with the TSA to address racial discrimination in airport screening processes - also known as the dreaded afro/locks/curls/omg-you're-black-and-not-relaxed hair check.
A press release explains:
Both the United States and California Constitutions prohibit unreasonable searches and selective enforcement of the law based on race. And although the law has carved out exceptions for airport screening, a search must still be tailored to detect threats to security.
The agreement comes after a January 2015 complaint on behalf of neuroscientist Malaika Singleton, who rocked her sisterlocks while traveling from Los Angeles to a G-8 summit in London back in 2013. On both legs of her flight — at LAX and at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport — Singleton received a patdown of her hair after she had already gone through a full body scan. (The agents found nothing and sent her on her way.) In the complaint, the ACLU noted:
When TSA agents are faced with ambiguous evidence or forced to apply subjective rules, it is more likely that they will unconsciously interpret the circumstances in a way that is consistent with racial stereotypes.
It's one thing to look after the safety and security of the nation by considering where people may hide weapons. People can hide things in their hair, after all, so, on its face, the rule makes sense. But it becomes a different story when race is added to the mix. It's one thing to be among the legions of people removing shoes, belts, clothes and the contents of pockets before going through, say, an advanced imaging technology machine. It's another to have someone size up your hairstyle and suggest that you may be a threat to national security. (Or observe, over dozens of flights in any given year, that the threat your hair represents varies depending on the location of your departure airport.)
Sometimes when the patdown happens, it's professional, if not a bit disconcerting. A TSA agent snaps on a glove, pat your hair, and lets you move along. Other times, it appears to be a direct commentary on race. Once, while in queue at Boston Logan a few years ago, I was flagged for an additional security check. The TSA officer, a petite Asian-American woman, made a huge show of going through my clear toiletries bag and verifying the contents of each container. When I noted three were conditioner, she paused and looked at me.
"Why so much conditioner? This is excessive. Do not pack so much conditioner next time. You do not need it."
I stayed silent. (TSA agents, after all, have the power to bump a person off a flight.) Inside, I seethed with anger. What had me fuming wasn't the patdown, but the additional, unwelcome and invasive search of my possessions and the totally unwanted commentary on my luggage. It shouldn't matter if I'm a curly-haired, face mask aficionado - if I follow the posted rules, why should I be judged for what is in my bag?
I, of course, am just one of many people subject to assumptions and searches of the area around my scalp. Today, ACLU attorney Novella Coleman, who handled Malaika Singleton's complaint and the negotiation with the TSA, wrote in a blog post on the website of the ACLU of Northern California:
Like these women, I also have come under TSA's repeated scrutiny because of my hair. Within the span of a year, I was selected for hair pat-downs during three out of four trips. And on each occasion my hair was styled in locs. The first time I froze as a stranger groped my hair in the name of national security. The second time I was prepared for the intrusion. I identified myself as an attorney and asked the TSA agent to articulate TSA's hair search policy. She said TSA's policy is to search hair if a person has extensions. When I told her I didn't have extensions, she revised her statement. She said it was TSA's policy to search hair if the person has "extensions or abnormalities." Ouch. The TSA agent then retrieved her supervisor, who told me it was TSA's policy to search hair if the body scanner is triggered or the agent cannot "see [the passenger's] scalp."
Unfortunately, the agreement may not to lead to immediate changes. Though it promises that the Multicultural Board of the TSA's "Disability and Multicultural Division" — interesting name they have there — will "specifically track hair patdown complaints filed…from African-American females throughout the country to assess whether a discriminatory impact may be occurring at a specific TSA secured location" it is more likely that a traveler, not a federal agency, will alter her behavior (or hairstyle). Though I may have later tweeted about my interaction with the Conditioner Interrogator, immediately after it happened I rushed off to catch my flight and decided that if I ever had to fly to or from Logan again, I would simply pay the extra $25 to check my bag and ensure I could get through security without a fight.
It's money I shouldn't have to pay - but sometimes, the fighting for the principle isn't worth sacrificing peace of mind. Now, if I could only get strangers - TSA uniform or no - to stop touching my hair.