Black women at airports may be getting harassed in disproportionate numbers because of their hair. Body scanners used by Transportation Security Administration agents are suspected of alerting airport security agents to possible contraband, which officers are required to then check out, according to a report by ProPublica. “With black females, the scanner alarms more because they have thicker hair; many times they have braids or dreadlocks,” a Texas-based TSA officer reportedly said. “Maybe, down the line, they will be redesigning the technology, so it can tell apart what’s a real threat and what is not.”
A “senior TSA official” said officers who may appear to be discriminating against black women are only complying with the rules of their training.
“Procedures require that if there is an alarm on the technology, the pat-down [must] be conducted,” that official said. Washington, D.C., resident Dorian Wanzer told ProPublica that she most recently had her hair patted down by airport officials two weeks ago and that it happens all the time when she travels. “At this point in my life I have come to expect it, but that doesn’t make it any less invasive and frustrating,” Wanzer, who’s African-American, said. “When you find yourself in that kind of situation, it makes you wonder… is this for security, or am I being profiled for my race?”
The TSA addressed the report with a statement stating that screening is not based on race and the security process is a work in progress. “TSA continually reviews procedures to improve security and the passenger experience, and is reviewing additional options for the screening of hair.” The statement confirms that in most cases, airport security is required to search passengers when their hair, or anything else, trips an alarm. When that happens, security workers are instructed to communicate what’s happening with the people they are searching and to proceed in a “respectful” fashion.
In 2017, there were 73 complaints of hair pat-downs thought to be racially motivated, according to the report. That number jumped to 105 last year. Further arguing it’s the technology not the personnel leading to hair searches, 25% of the TSA’s 46,000 screeners are black and almost that many more are Hispanic. The scanners in question are made by L3 Technologies and cost $150,000 each. A spokesperson for the company declined to address the report, instead directing the public to a web page that details the “active millimeter wave radio technology” their machines utilize.