Sunday, August 26, 2007

Flying First Class on Southwest

This was a great anecdote from a book I recently picked up, Sheryll Cashin's The Failures of Integration:
I have my own informal means of observing the consistent discomfort with African Americans on the part of nonblacks. It is a phenomenon that, ironically, I greatly benefit from. I call it "Southwest Airlines First Class." My husband and I enjoy this inside joke when flying Southwest, a dependable, cheap airline that allows passengers to seat themselves on a first come, first serve basis. We always hope that there will be a black person far ahead of us at the front of the line; a dark-skinned young black male is best. At least four out of five times, we can depend on the seats next to that black person being empty, even if his row is far up front, begging for the taking. I am always happy to take this convenient seat, feeling grateful for the discomfort of others and marveling at the advantage they are willing to pass up due to their own social limitations. I smile warmly at my black brother as I plop down next to him.

Sheryll Cashin, The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream, (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), 12-13.

I wouldn't say I've consciously noticed this phenomenon, but having mentioned it, it does strike me as familiar on my own frequent flying trips. Earlier, Cashin cites a study showing that White people are willing to pay up to a 13% premium to live in all White neighborhoods. The racial discomfort we feel causes us to pass up on opportunities we might otherwise enjoy--from a better seat on an airline to a cheaper house in a good neighborhood. The problem, as Cashin and others have noted, is that "green follows White," so if White people cluster away from their Black peers, then social resources too will follow Whites away from Blacks. This serves to blunt the costs Whites should have to face due to their discomfort towards people of color, but it often has devastating effects on the minority community.

So while the micro-benefit Cashin enjoys as a Black women due to White discomfort does tickle me a little bit, it is symbolic of a larger issue that is very serious and largely detrimental to a large slice of the American populace.

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