It is an eternal itinerant hope: the first class upgrade. I was lucky enough to encounter one on a flight from New York to Phoenix, when a cheerful attendant came back to my seat in the exit row, asked my name, and announced that I would be walking past. All the way up front, as it turned out: a front-row aisle seat. Next to a white guy in his twenties. Opposite was a white man with a shaggy ponytail and a white woman, who sported matching floral-print face masks. Over my shoulder, the rest of the first-class cabin was filled with middle-aged or older white people and a lone Indian — AirPods stuck in their ears, a few with a watch that cost as much as a private flight sneaked from their sleeves, one with an iPad set visibly and disturbingly to a film that featured the horrific murder of Asians – all of whom looked like they thought they were inducted into their rightful place on the plane , which is equivalent, one might say, to their rightful place on Earth.
What did the Bible say about due to the meek? Glad to be upgraded, I was also experiencing my usual discomfort – flying first is a psychological experience for me – and I couldn’t help but feel questions in the burning eyes of my cabin mates: why are you here ? What do you do for a living? Are you famous? Do you think you deserve what I deserve? A doubt that is expressed as often as it burns tacitly. Questions that, as vigorously as I resist, underscore the nagging suspicion that I don’t belong with the haves, that I don’t deserve extra legroom, hot food, and an attendant asking me if I want some more lime in my club soda before mounting the wheels.
For far too many people, the possibility of an Other enjoying their leisure time, having disposable income, being equal in any way to someone white – well, all of that is almost unfathomable. Which is to say, seeing me or anyone in the range of my complexion in first class upsets what white people have worked hard to make us believe is the natural order of things.
“Travel is one of the few areas of life where the American class system is truly laid bare,” University of Pennsylvania historian Mia Bay, author of travel black, a new book about travel history and resistance to segregation, I said. “And I think that’s where African Americans have trouble. I think the message to African Americans is that African Americans can’t really be first class people. They can’t be number one among Americans in terms of travel to this elite space.
Now forgive me, dear reader, but does that describe your way of thinking?
Even a little bit?
Truly and truly thinking?
And if so, when do you investigate that thought?
Call it symbolism that the other non-white person in my first class cabin was Indian. For what is a first-class cabin if not a microcosm of the American class system, and inasmuch as it boasts of being a paradigmatic bootstrap meritocracy, what is the American class system if not a system aspiring to the racialized caste? The one that was rigged – inequitable schooling, redlining, voter suppression, to name a few schemes – to fix white people as the highest caste and, at the same time, to keep everyone else and their mom circumscribed as Lesser.
You wouldn’t believe how much work it took to start shaking this indoctrination. To, say, board a plane on the priority line. For, when I’m on the coach, breaking that little curtain when I need to use the toilet. Doing something as simple as reclining my seat without feeling like it’s infringing on another person’s civil rights.
In 2016, Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School and a member of Harvard’s Behavioral Insights Group, co-authored a report on inequalities in air travel, saying the presence of a first-class cabin increases tensions among airplane passengers. “We are all aware that there are inequalities in the world, and we see inequalities in our daily lives,” Norton told me in an interview. “But when you have these microcosm environments – we’re all going to the same place, we’re all going to be on the plane the same time – you can really feel the inequality. You can literally see it being curtained off.
It doesn’t matter what the good book says about the humble inheriting the earth. First-class travel is another glaring example of how white people usurped the world they wanted. But credit where it’s due: Realizing that the world has taken all kinds of audacity from white people (not to mention a collective expression of Nietzsche’s will to power). And that includes the audacity of old Orville and Wilbur Wright.
In 1914, just eleven years after the historic feat of the Wright Brothers, a pilot carrying a single passenger for the St. Petersburg-Tampa airboat line made the world’s first commercial flight. In the days following World War I, Uncle Sam began selling fighter planes for relative low-end. While most airlines had made a profit by carrying not passengers but mail for the postal service, this changed as aviation technology improved and public interest grew. Before long, airplanes carried more people than mail. Over time – 1955, to be exact – TWA began selling first class service on one of its aircraft, an offering that has evolved to offer luxury approaching today’s best business class.
Remember that was in 1955.
That same year, Rosa Parks’ backseat refusal started the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Ten difficult years before the Selma-Montgomery march and the adoption of the Voting Rights Act.
Thirteen oppressive years before the passage of the Fair Housing Act.
Although air travel itself was regulated by the government, making de jure discrimination illegal, airports fell under municipal and state jurisdictions, allowing many, especially those in the south, to enforce the injustices of Jim Crow.
And since the system mired many non-whites in tax deprivation, the exorbitant price of first-class tickets damn near guaranteed Jim Crow cabins. In 1955, the median household income for white families was $4,613, while for blacks it was $2,544. That same year, a round trip coach the ticket from Chicago to Phoenix costs $138, which means the trip back and middle from Phoenix costs more than 5% of the average annual income of a black family. First class? When? How? ‘Or’ What?
Before anyone can say that these are the oppressions of yesteryear: know that it is also true now.
For example, in 2017, the NAACP issued an advisory against American Airlines that cited a “disrespectful” and “discriminatory” pattern of behavior suggesting a “corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias.”
For example, last year a black software developer and nine friends flew first class on a girls’ trip and were first rerouted to the coach when boarding. “People literally couldn’t understand how this was possible,” she tweeted. A hateful white passenger spoke about her group: “Are they a higher class of people than me?”
For example, last year R&B singer Lyfe Jennings’ status as a first-class passenger was repeatedly questioned between when he checked in for a flight and when he boarded. on board, interactions he described in an Instagram post: “I’m sick of this shit!!! lady asked me 4 times if i knew it was 1st class line, i told her yes each time. . . . I can’t tell you how many times a white man or white woman has asked me to step out of line to ask if I’m supposed to fly first class.
The treatment was egregious enough for an American Airlines spokesperson to call it “disturbing”.
When I asked if it was possible to consider class without the intersection of race, Norton replied, “It is true that you can have conversations about inequality without considering other structural factors. But often you miss part of the story if you don’t think about the underlying drivers of this inequality – and there are many, but one certainly seems to be race.
To keep everything real, there is no “appearance” about how important racism plays in the classroom. But lest anyone see me as an Afro-pessimist who doesn’t see progress, all is black and white antagonism, I’ll share another recent travel experience. My son, my mother and I flew to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving. Because I had airline credit and the fare was only a few hundred dollars anyway, I bought my mom a first class ticket. At the airport, my son and I were lucky enough to be upgraded. During boarding I walked us through the priority line – doing my best to make it feel natural – and onto the plane feeling something akin to what I imagine the average white guy does from middle caste. Seated, I looked around, savoring the fact that my family included the most black faces I can remember seeing in first class – never mind that it was only a forty-minute flight. Fueled by this happy satisfaction, I clapped a palm on my son’s shoulder and, in a simple attempt to stir up even fleeting enthusiasm, said, “We’re flying first class.” What about that? »
My puzzled teenager frowned and sighed. “Dad,” he said, “we’ve flown first class before.”
The boy said it like it was his birthright too.
And I didn’t talk him out of it, because what kind of parent would I have been to remind him that’s not the case?
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