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Back on planes, fear of racial profiling remains

By Sasha Khokha, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday September 29, 2001



Bulent Altan put on his Planet Hollywood T-shirt Thursday to make sure no one thought he was a terrorist. 

Then Altan, a 24-year old native of Turkey, boarded a plane bound for Germany heading on a month-long trip. Like other passengers of Middle Eastern, South Asian, or West Asian descent, he feared he would be regarded with increased suspicion in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  

He decided to make the trip anyway. 

“I definitely don’t change my plans for terrorist attacks,” said Altan, who lives in South Berkeley. In Turkey, he said, terrorism was a regular threat. 

Speaking to a crowd of travelers at O’Hare airport yesterday, President Bush urged Americans to support the failing airline industry. He told the public to “get on the airlines, get about the business of America.” 

But for travelers who may be perceived as Arab-American, the business of getting on an airplane may be more daunting. Bay Area travelers of Middle-Eastern or South Asian descent have experienced a range of emotions when it comes to air travel. Some, like Altan, said they won’t let a fear of scapegoating change their travel plans. Others said they have been reluctant to board airplanes since Sept. 11. Psychologists said these are all normal responses for those facing heightened discrimination. 

“It’s a dilemma for people who are targets of stereotypes,” said Clark McKown, a faculty fellow in the Psychology Department at UC Berkeley who specializes in the psychology of stereotyping. He said some people “choose to accommodate the environment” by limiting their activities to avoid situations where they face discrimination. Others move ahead with business as usual, deciding to express “their ethnic identity in a clear way and risk being targets of discrimination.” 

“It’s a dilemma that people of color have faced in different contexts,” said McKown, who compared the current situation for Arab-Americans to the climate Japanese-Americans faced during World War II.  

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week found that a majority of Americans favor requiring Arabs, including U.S. citizens, to undergo “separate, more intensive security procedures at airports.” About half of those polled support the idea that Arabs, even U.S. citizens, should carry special identification. 

But in recent weeks, suspicion has also been cast on Americans who are not of Arab descent. 

“I was afraid of what I was going to confront,” said Gurvinder Singh, 36, who said he has been under intense stress since the attacks. “I am a Sikh, I wear a turban, I have a beard.”  

Singh flies from Chino to the Bay Area weekly for work. He was in Santa Clara when the attack happened, and drove the nearly 400-mile trip home. He refused to get on a plane the following week. 

Singh’s fears were not unfounded. Since Sept. 11, pilots on several flights have ordered South Asian or Middle Eastern passengers to deplane because the crew “felt unsafe.” Helal Omeira, Executive Director of the Northern California Council on American-Islamic relations, said he was working to find legal counsel for a mother and child who were removed from a flight at San Jose Airport last week. 

Jo Murray, a spokesperson for Oakland Airport, said she was not aware of any incidents in which passengers were asked to get off aircrafts. 

Omeira said that such removals are embarrassing for passengers, who are usually released after questioning. “It’s just humiliating, because there’s nothing to hide,” said Omeira.  

“They find out that this guy grew up in California, or was born here, or that this woman has a head scarf on because she’s exercising freedom of religion.” 

Singh echoed Omeira’s statement. “When I took my oath and became an American citizen, it came from my heart,” he said.  

Singh said he considered changing jobs to avoid frequent air travel.  

“But for a person who looks as I do in the eyes of so many fellow Americans, I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going to be able to find another job?’” he said. 

Then, he had to ask himself a harder question, one he said every Sikh-American asked in the wake of the attacks. “Do Sikhs fit into America anymore?” 

Omeira said his group had received “a lot of pre-emptive calls” from Muslim travelers seeking advice as they headed to the airport.  

“I tell them to be very forthcoming with information, to answer all the questions,” he said. Omeira recommends Arab-American travelers arrive four or five hours in advance of their flights to “give law enforcement the necessary time to do what they need to do.”  

But he said, he prays and hopes any questioning “is not racially motivated.”  

Jerry Snyder, spokesperson from the Western Regional office of the Federal Aviation Administration, said that although strict security measures are in place, none are “aimed or directed at any ethnic group in any way, shape, or form.” He said that it is not in the FAA’s jurisdiction to require any sensitivity training for security personnel. 

Omeira said he expects air travel to pick up among Arab-Americans. “We all have our reasons for flying,” he said. “We all have family that we want to see.” 

He plans to visit his mother in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving.  

“I can’t think of a reason on this planet that would keep me away from my mom,” he said.