2009: The First Black Female Flight Crew

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On Thursday, February 12, 2009 history was made when an all African American flight (ASA) crew departed Atlanta. Get this, all of the crew, from the pilot and first officer to the two flight attendants serving in the cabin all were African American and all were female! It only took a century of flying in this country (Creative Commons License photo credit: James Willamor).

During my years working as a flight attendant, this never happened at my airline. As a matter of fact, I can recall easily the number of African American flight crew that I flew with over a five year period. The pilots of color were usually minimal and on the occasion that they would board the aircraft they were usually males. What is interesting here is that as I would stand along with the pilots at the front of the aircraft, it would never fail that several passengers would question how long they’d been flying and would amazingly ask if they were truly qualified to fly the aircraft.

Aviation has historically been a field dominated by whites, specifically white males. The exclusion often faced by people of color is continually evident in the airline industry. The fact that it is 2009 is suggestive of how systemic both sexism and racism is in this and many other industries. Seeing these African American women take flight is indeed long overdue. Let us now hope that a barrier is being broken and a path is being carved for others wishing to break into the airline industry. Please join me in looking forward to seeing many others when we board our next flight.

Creating New Legacies: The Role of the Historically Black College and Strong Black Identity

In honor of black history month, I thought it only right to share one of the most positive contributions of the Historically Black College on black students. While conducting research over the past two years at an HBC in Texas, I have been inspired by the attention and aspiration of faculty to delve into the history and significance of the university and inspire students with an environment rich in history. Because of this, the university fosters a positive self and community identity. For instance, before conducting this research, I had my own experiences attending a university in which I was the only student of color in my classes for a significant portion of my academic career. In this respect I coupled my personal experiences with some existing research on black student experiences at predominantly white colleges and sought to uncover how universities can help or hinder a positive black identity. Although my experience was one in which I was constantly aware and reminded of my difference, I am very fortunate to conduct research at an institution that makes it a point to ensure black students have an avenue to an education sans racist and differential attitudes. This is where the much needed HBC comes in.   The students in my research take considerable pride in seeing others around them who are successful, thriving, supportive, and nurturing. One student shared:

it feels so good to see black professors, engineers, and administrators that care about us and our future. It lets me see that it can be done.”

Along this path, several students shared this sentiment, but extended this aspect to include the relationship they have with faculty, as in this quote from my research:

“Faculty members here are like family. If you need something; anything, they try to help. I can remember when my family was displaced because of hurricane Rita, one of my professors found them a place to stay.”

This is to say, the HBC provides black students with more than an academic setting; it provides them a safe haven from the outside world and a reality in which they feel devalued. Students recognize the significance of the university setting as a place where they can learn and feel comfortable and confident about who they are and what they are attempting to be. Put best by one of my female participants:

“I never have to think about the fact that I am black when I am here. I am comfortable and when I look around, I see others that are like me trying to do similar things. It is really awesome to see.”

So, when it comes to helping black students obtain their dream of success through education, it is important that we remember the significance of the Historically Black College.

Implicit Awareness Tests

In one 2006 study (From American City to Japanese Village) conducted at Harvard University, researchers Yarrow Durham, Andrew Scott Baron, and Mahzarin R. Banaji conducted research on the implicit and explicit nature of racial attitudes of children between the ages of 6 and 10 and adults.  In this particular study, the researchers examined the changes in the implicit and explicit race-based attitudes of White middle-class children and adults.  The groups focused on in this study were children of either Japanese or Black descent.  A second aspect of this study was conducted in rural Japan and continued to understand both the implicit and explicit racial attitudes of Japanese children and their racial awareness and preferences for members of their in-group versus out-group preferences (black children). 

        One of the main findings of this research is that implicit racial awareness emerges early, but begins to decease as the individual ages.   Implicitly, there is an age related decrease in White over Japanese implicit racial attitudes; however, this is not the case of White over Black implicit preferences.  White over both Japanese and Black preferences showed age related explicit in-group preferences, but both decrease with age, showing that in explicit group preferences notable differences emerge between children and adults.   In short, test-type matters; White-Black and White-Japanese tests showed differences in in-group preferences particularly when the out-group being tested is Blacks.

        In another aspect of this study, similar implicit and explicit tests were given to children and adults in rural Japan.  In the case of children, implicit and explicit racial attitudes and preferences showed similar results as the children and adults in the United States.  In-group preferences were stronger in younger children and decreases some with age, but the trend remains that shows stronger in-group preferences when the out-group being compared is Black. 

        While the Implicit Awareness Tests are useful in their explanations of racial awareness in children, there are several things that the researchers should consider.  In the aforementioned study, the authors made no mention of the historical aspect of race awareness and attitudes as it pertains to the United States.  Most of the attitudes found in their analysis have in fact been instrumental in the foundation of American society; a society that was founded on racial oppression and principles.  Indeed, the consequences of the historical aspect of U.S. racial relations are still apparent in most major institutions of American society; racist attitudes and in-group preferences are often used in the process to reproduce the existing racial structure.

        Another avenue the researchers may want to consider is the use of existing sociological research and terminology to gain a more structural and encompassing approach to understanding implicit (and explicit) racial attitudes instead of their existing individualistic approach.  Some past research by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin in particular as well as other sociologists have touched significantly on this topic; children are aware of racial/ethnic concepts and ideologies.  In the work of Van Ausdale and Feagin, the researchers observed an implicit and explicit racial and ethnic awareness at even younger ages; some children were four-year olds.  Some major conceptual ideas can be gained through sociological research; institutional racism and systemic racism are two suggestions that can enhance their existing research in this case.      �

“Free the Jena Six” Shirts Banned From Schools

<P>After the recent highly racialized events in Jena, Louisiana, high school and college students around the United States have shown their support for the black students in Jena by wearing various “Free the Jena Six” t-shirts. Although this is seen as innocent by some, school officials at several schools around the country have viewed the shirts as “disruptive” and as potentially causing conflict on their campuses. Thus, in late August a group of Jena High School students were banned by Jena High School from wearing to school shirts that voice support for the six accused students. According to an MSNBC Report, Roy Breithaupt, the local school superintendent, banned the shirts, stating that the slogan on the shirts might cause school problems.

Other schools around the country are following a similar path in not allowing students to wear the Jena-support shirts to school. Recently, a student in Tennessee was not allowed to enter the school while wearing her “Free the Jena Six” shirt. According to a school administrator, the shirt could “cause a problem.” It is important to mention in both of these cases, there are no standard uniforms to be worn to these schools. The Tennessee student is currently in the process of appealing this decision.�

Apartheid as American as Apple Pie: The Case of Jena

On Thursday September 20, the march in Jena ended peacefully and most thought, successfully. African Americans attending the march applaud the success and celebrate the fact of proving some of the white residents in the town and around the world that this was in fact a very peaceful event. Leading up to this event, car dealers removed their cars from the lots; businesses taped and closed their businesses, all in the belief that trouble was inevitable. According to a local minister attending the marches:

“This showed them; we were here for a purpose. That purpose was to tell whites that we are tired; it shows blacks that we can and should stand up for what’s right. This march in Jena is to say that it is time to stop treating us unjustly in the system.”

Most of the commentary coming from those who attended the march in Jena describes the beauty and tragedy of the march in the same breath. Another African American minister describes this event this way:

“It was the most beautiful thing to see all those people together supporting equal justice. You had to be here to feel the atmosphere and unity. There are no words to describe the feeling. The pictures and the news reports could never do it justice. At the same time, it is very sad that this event was very necessary. People want to say that we [blacks] need to get over things; that racism and hatred is in the past. This ain’t about the past. This is about the past, present, and the future. Obviously, this is still and always has been an issue.”

A Jena resident and participant talks candidly about the recent events leading to the march by saying that the call to equal justice was long overdue:

“I have been here all my life and what is happening here with racism has been happening all my life. This was nothing new, but I am glad that this is getting attention. Not just for the Jena 6, but for everybody. This place is filled with racism; it is filled with David Dukes; they just don’t wear the white sheets in public. The point is, racism is still here, I guess we are supposed to be quiet about it.”

So, what is the outcome? African Americans still feel that the march and the visits from broadcast media outlets are necessary and beneficial, but this is not the only thing that is happening; racial threats are also becoming a commonality. The first African American minister quote above comments again:

“My church has been getting some serious threats from supremacist groups. We have been getting them all day, every day. I have been personally getting them. These people are saying that they will kill all of us that are deeply involved with the Jena 6. The morning after, they called my organization office and asked for me personally to tell me that they were there with us in the march and they would kill me and kill us all. I am not concerned about this. They can’t hurt me.”

These threats are once again a sign that the old legal segregation and its extreme and violence oriented behavior is still part of the lives of many African Americans in the South. Social science research shows this clearly, yet the mass media mostly ignore the findings of researchers. The coverup of this reality is again one of the great tragedies of the United States. No country can be a democracy where many of its citizens must fear for their lives just for exercising their civil rights and civil liberties.

Segregation and Racism in Jena, Louisiana

Imagine a small Louisiana town with about three-thousand residents, of which some 12 percent are black. This is Jena, Louisiana, a town located in LaSalle parish.  This well-known racist environment, where African Americans have found their daily lives being riddled with racist events, has finally received national attention. In this case, the focus is on events that showcase the long-standing inequality in the U.S. justice system. The officially enforced norms of the old segregation system are not dead.
Mychal Bell, 16, the last of the six black students still in jail for assaulting a white student, will request to be released on bail after his conviction was overturned late last week.  On Friday September 14, 2007, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Mychal Bell’s felony conviction of aggravated battery, saying that the charge should have been handled in juvenile court.  LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters says that he will appeal. Initially, six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder; the charges have since been reduced for four of the six students to aggravated second degree battery.

To understand the charges faced by these Black teenagers, we have to examine how and why this started.  This began a year ago in September 2006 when an African American freshman asked the principal of his high school if he could sit under a shade tree on the school grounds during the day.  What this new student did not know is that this tree is known at school to be the “white tree.”  The principal told the student that he could sit anywhere he liked.  The day after the African American student sat under this particular tree three nooses were found hanging from it. 

Many in the Black community called for the expulsion of the three white students proven responsible for the act, but white authorities deemed the act an innocent prank.  For this prank, the students received only in-school suspension.  As a reply, the day after the nooses were hung, black athletes and other students organized a silent protest under the same “white tree” to show dissatisfaction with nooses and the mild in-school suspensions.
Later, the police and district attorney were called to an assembly taking place at the school.  At this assembly, the old segregated South was in evidence as Black students sat on one side while whites sat on the other.  At one point, the district attorney, Reed Walters, lifted his pen and said, “I can be your friend or your worst enemy.  With one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, someone set fire to the school, and this crime is still unsolved.  The following day, a few black students tried to attend a party hosted and attended by whites.  While at this party, 16 year old Robert Bailey, a black student and one of the defendants, was attacked and beaten.
The next day after the party, another highly charged racial event took place.  According to news reports, at a local convenience store, Bailey was approached by a white student from the party, and harsh words were exchanged.  The white boy ran to his truck and pulled a loaded shotgun on Bailey and his friends.  Bailey wrestled the gun away from him.  Bailey and friends ran home, with the gun and eventually police got involved.  Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, robbery, and disturbing the peace.  The white student was not charged.

The following Monday, December 4, a white student took the news of the party fight back to school and loudly taunted blacks by saying that a black boy was “whipped” by white boys.  When he walked into the courtyard, he was attacked by several black students.  He was punched and kicked and taken to a hospital. His injuries were reported to be superficial; he was treated and released and attended a class ceremony that evening.  Six black students were charged with aggravated assault, but the district attorney increased the charges to second-degree attempted murder. This aggressive act provoked a wave of black protest.
The previous incidents in which whites attacked Black students were treated as school fights. Why were the actions of the young Black students not treated the same way?
Bell was the first to go to trial.  On the morning of the trial, the district attorney reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy.  (In this case, the students’ tennis shoes are apparently considered a dangerous weapon.) Bell’s public defender did not call any witnesses on his behalf, and he was found guilty by an all-white jury.
Notice the key event here: A white protest using nooses against white space being occupied by a Black student. Whites, especially young white men, still make much use of hangman’s nooses, the N-word epithet, and other symbols of the extreme racial oppression of legal segregation era. Some use these symbols intentionally while others do not realize why they cause so much pain and anger for  African Americans. In an important book of interviews with middle-class African Americans, Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes report that an experienced African American psychologist explained to them that when he encounters a old symbol of racial oppression, such as the N-word epithet, he often sees in the back of his mind a black man hanging from a tree. He grew up during legal segregation era when lynchings of Black people were more common than today. Not surprisingly, thus, Blacks’ past experiences with discrimination inform and contextualize their interpretations of present racist events. In contrast, the impact of racist events such as hanging nooses and yelling racist epithets may well be underestimated by naïve or venal whites, as well as by other non-Black observers.
Notice in the Jena events too that some whites signaled to the African American community that the symbols of bloody lynchings were not very serious, and should be quickly forgotten. Indeed, the psychologist cited above indicated in his interview that his white friends will sometimes tell him to just “let go” of racist comments and events and “move on.” Many whites seem to believe that such insults are “trivial” or “innocent” and thus do not hurt or cause psychological damage. They are, the data makes clear, quite wrong. Such a white perspective suggests that its advocates have not been the recipients of regular put-downs and routine questioning of one’s worth.

~ Louwanda Evans and Joe Feagin