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Unfriendly Skies: United Airlines and Police Violence

Shameless brutality on an airline traumatizes people of color across the globe.

Dreamstime/Free Image
Source: Dreamstime/Free Image

Earlier this month many people all over the country – and even other parts of the world – were horrified to watch the video of 69 year-old Dr. David Dao being brutalized and dragged off a United airplane by law enforcement. Although I prefer not to watch violent experiences on social media, as a clinician and researcher who studies race and trauma, this event came to my attention when I was asked by the Huffington Post to comment on the incident. From the video, it appears that the officer banged Dr. Dao’s head on an armrest before dragging his bleeding and unconscious body down the aisle like a piece of oversized luggage.

What crime did Dr. Dao commit to prompt this assault? Was he an international terrorist? Did he attack another passenger? No, he was a customer who paid for his ticket and was asked to give up his seat for a United employee. His crime was that he did not conform to Asian stereotypes of being docile and silent. Dr. Dao, a lung specialist, refused to surrender his seat due to obligations he had to his patients in Louisville, Kentucky. United personnel thought this was reason enough to have him forcibly removed by law enforcement. Dr. Dao is later seen on video, with blood dripping from his mouth, begging to get back into his seat in order to serve his patients. Finally, he is so disoriented from the experience, he asks for someone to kill him.

Shockingly, no medical care is being offered. Dr. Dao could have been suffering from a broken neck when his limp body was being dragged away, yet no paramedics assist and he is not loaded onto a stretcher. He may have been suffering from a concussion as he tried to stagger back onto the plane. There is no evidence that United cared about anything other than getting that plane in the air with their employees. Ironically, this incident caused further delay as the plane had to be emptied so Dr. Dao’s blood could be cleaned off the aisle.

Just having flown United to and from San Francisco for a conference, with another United cross-country flight scheduled the next week, I felt sick as I saw the images. Not only was I a loyal United customer, Dr. Dao was a part of my own medical community in Louisville, Kentucky. Until last fall, I had served as faculty in University of Louisville’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. I remain clinical director of the Behavioral Wellness Clinic in Louisville, where, among other things, we evaluate and treat people suffering from racial trauma. In my experience, one of the main causes of racial trauma is abuse by law enforcement, with hostilities from employers coming in at a close second. Seeing Dr. Dao being abused by law enforcement is triggering to people of color all over our country who have been likewise abused by law enforcement either directly (i.e., racial profiling, threats, sexual assaults, beatings) or indirectly (i.e., had loved ones abused or executed by police). This shows that not only will they harm the most stigmatized groups (Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans), but even “model minorities” are not safe. I participated in a forum at Duke University last month on race and policing, and Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor Douglas Blackmon said something chilling and insightful, “The US legal system was designed to bring justice to White people and injustice to people of color.”

In a blame-the-victim fashion, some people tried to smear Dr. Dao to justify what happened. United Airlines initially defended the indefensible, and it took over two weeks for them to admit what they did was wrong. I can't imagine the harm this caused to Dr. Dao, his family, his practice, and his patients. Would things have gone differently if Dr. Dao was a White doctor? It’s impossible to know for certain in any one individual case, but it is hard for me to imagine this happening to a White physician. What I can safely say, however, is that these sort of incidents happen far more often to people of color and contribute to an ongoing perception in marginalized groups that the world is not safe.

I got an email from United Airlines yesterday, sent to all frequent flyers. CEO Oscar Chavez acknowledged that “corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values.” The remedy? United will no longer force customers to leave their assigned seats once seated (good), they will pay more for volunteers to get off the plane (a no-brainer), and (bizarrely) they will pay people more for lost luggage. Although I would love to believe this is all in the name of doing the right thing, it seems to me these changes are really in United’s financial interest anyway, given the bad PR from this event and the ultimate cost to the airline from the debacle that lead to the grounded flight. Furthermore, the letter does not at all acknowledge the trauma caused to people who watched this event in real-time and on video, and notably the trauma inflicted on vulnerable people of color who have a long history of victimization by police.

I asked my staff to set up a meeting for me with Mr. Chavez. What I wanted to say is that if United wants to make this right, they should create a fund to treat people suffering from racial trauma and support research efforts aimed at helping these victims. I wanted him to understand that this wasn’t just one person, but the event had ripple effects throughout communities of color. But I got no response, which was disappointing but not surprising.

In terms of my own process, this video was traumatizing to me personally. Although I have never been injured by police, I am reminded of the clients I have seen for racial trauma, caused by a myriad of indignities – too many to list here. I had nightmares twice this week about airplanes and Dr. Dao. The United event sends me a message, loud and clear. It reminds me that no matter how hard I work, no matter what elite schools I graduate from, no matter how many people I heal, no matter how much respect I garner from my peers, I am expected to be an “obedient Negro” anytime someone with a badge tells me to. Otherwise, that officer has the right to crack my head over a metal armrest, drag me down an aisle unconscious, and toss my bleeding body into a crowded airport with no accountability or medical care. This is a warning to people of color everywhere.

Despite the well-intentioned lies I was fed a young person – education will save you – it will not. “Get a good job, rise up, show them you are better.” Nope, neither my psychologist license nor Coach purse will be an adequate deterrent if I say "no" to an officer for any reason. My only recourse is unquestioned obedience and a deferential smile that lets them know that I remember my place. This was true 200 years ago and is still true today. Law enforcement will do whatever they want to us, whenever they want, in the name of those in power.

Was this video traumatizing to you? If so, please share your comments below.

(Note: Posts on other aspects of this article will be removed, but readers are welcome at any time to send non-anonymous email comments or questions directly to Dr. Williams.)


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Lee, S., Wong, N.A., & Alvarez, A. N. (2009). The model minority and perpetual foreigner: Stereotypes of Asian Americans. In N. Tewari & A. N. Alvarez (Eds.), Asian American Psychology: Current Perspectives, 1st ed. (pp. 69-84). Psychology Press.

Malcoun, E., Williams, M. T., & Bahojb-Nouri, L. V. (2015). Assessment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in African Americans. In L. T. Benuto & B. D. Leany (Eds.), Guide to Psychological Assessment with African Americans, New York: Springer. ISBN: 978-1-4939-1003-8.

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Williams, M., Malcoun, E., Sawyer, B., Davis, D., Nouri, L., and Bruce, S. (2014). Cultural adaptations of prolonged exposure therapy for treatment and prevention of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in African Americans. Journal of Behavioral Science, 4, 102-124.

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