Are TSA “Random Screens” Code for Racial Profiling?

The ugly side of airport travel that dehumanizes minorities.

Posted Dec 15, 2018

The holidays are often a time of major airport travel.  If the stress of getting to your flight on time, your luggage onto the plane and at your actual destination aren’t enough, for many, the outright racist behavior of TSA personnel can be an added headache and insult.

As a former multicultural researcher, I always considered myself fairly aware of racial injustices and fought to empower the disenfranchised.  When I completed my dissertation on Muslim youth post 9/11, I recall being shocked at the prevalence of “airport stories.”  Nine-year old children with Arab-sounding names having their palms swiped, families knowing they’d be stopped every time.  I considered myself lucky to generally “pass” at airports without too much trouble due to what others call my “racial ambiguity” (is she Italian, Hispanic, Jewish?).  That is, until very recently.

Although I had a strong history of flying from the small, conservative area of South Bend, Indiana to Oregon by way of Chicago O’Hare airport for a solid four years, I was never stopped or subjected to additional screenings.  Maybe it was all the White men standing around security while I was a younger female proudly displaying my Notre Dame sweatshirt every time I traveled. 

But in recent times after going through additional optional screening to obtain TSA-Pre-Check status, I am being stopped more than ever before, being told it is “random.”  What’s interesting is that in all of these scenarios so far, I have been traveling to airport hubs in large, diverse areas and stopped by women of color security personnel subjecting me to the most bizarre screenings such as asking to wipe my phone and then letting me walk away.  In none of these scenarios did they have my name, did a beep go off or anything.  They would just look at me and say I was the grand prize winner of a “random screening.” 

I was hesitant to chalk this up to anything more than, well, randomness.  Statistically, the odds are that eventually you will be stopped, right?  My European American husband, was more skeptical.  Until that is, it kept happening despite having gone through the extra step of meeting with TSA officials to obtain Pre-Check status (which many claim is useless anyway). 

Regardless, I started looking into this phenomenon through reading TSA stories in the news and on blogs.  And time after time, a pattern emerged:  a person of color was “randomly” selected for screening, and actually said to the TSA personnel that the statistical odds of always being “randomly” selected made it impossible to truly be “random.”  TSA would respond that they heard this argument often, which further lends credence to the fact that it is the same subset of individuals of color being stopped time and time again.  Basically, racial profiling.

The problem is, passengers give up many rights once they enter an airport.  To fly you must comply with all the rules and regulations set forth by the U.S. Department of Transportation.  While recently Congress introduced the Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, there appears to be no mention of civil liberties, including protection against discrimination.

The ACLU has accessed documents that confirm unreliable and unscientific racial and religious profiling used by the TSA in screening procedures which it continues to employ despite its egregious impact.  Unfortunately, little is being done, but more and more individuals are speaking out openly about this.  Most recently (as of the last 24 hours of the publishing of this article), Pakistani ‘Queer Eye’ star Tan France accused the TSA of racial profiling for being hassled due to traveling while being brown helping to bring this issue into the public space. 

But for most non-celebrity individuals, standing up for your rights (especially in the moment at the airport) has resulted in some scary stories of being taken to private back rooms for searches.  If you are particularly incensed and willing to speak your mind, prepare to grab your things and head for the rental car area to drive to your destination so long as it does not involve crossing an ocean. 

My plan for the next time I am “randomly” screened: if I can muster up the courage, is to call it out for what it is.  Saying with a genuine smile to the agent, “‘random’ screen, or racial profiling?” and proceeding with whatever ridiculous search is to occur.  To be honest, I’d be thrilled if I was being selected because I previously criticized TSA agents in a Psychology Today article.  Because, then, it would not be random at all, and it certainly wouldn’t be because of the color of my skin.