According to Wiz Khalifa, LAX authorities temporarily detained him Saturday because of the his cutting-edge technology. In a society where police stop people for “walking while black,” “running while black,” and “driving while black,” the chart-topping rapper is the first documented case of someone who was detained for “hovering while black.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that Khalifa had a run-in with U.S. Customs officials after he was asked to step off of his “hoverboard,” or a self-balancing Segway without handles. The confrontation between uniformed officers and the hip-hop star were caught on video and posted to Khalifa’s Instagram and Twitter account. In them, you see Khalifa surrounded by officers as he stands atop the device. “What’re you gonna do, put me in jail?” Khalifa asked. The next video, on Instagram, jumps to Khalifa on the ground in handcuffs, as the three officers demand he “stop resisting.” He calmly repeats, “I’m not resisting, sir.”
The aggression shown towards Wiz Khalifa from officers is yet another reminder that no degree of success can protect black people from racial profiling. Whereas white people might benefit from wealth and access when it comes to being targeted by police, the reality of being black in America is inescapable.
Khalifa attributes the violent run-in with officers to their lack of understanding of the device he was riding. “All because I didn’t want to ditch the technology everyone will be using in the next 6 months,” he tweeted. “Do what you want kids.” But despite how much or how little the officers knew about the tech, I have a feeling Khalifa knew what was really going on.
Saturday’s incident doesn’t mark the first time a black celebrity has been racially profiled in public space. In 2013, Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker was accused of shoplifting and forcibly frisked by a New York City deli clerk. A witness to the incident told Gothamist, “When they didn’t find anything, they told him to leave, at which point he said, ‘No, I want to speak with someone. You can’t just touch me like this.’” TMZ reported later that the employee had been fired, but the damage was done.
Later that year, Oprah Winfrey was also kept from buying a $38,000 handbag from a French boutique, only to be denied by the salesperson three times—on account of how expensive the bag is. According to NPR, Winfrey is worth an estimated $3 billion dollars. She could have bought $38,000 purses for her entire audience and still come out OK—if my math is correct.
No amount of money, prestige, or acclaim prevented these two incidents. The clerk and salesperson saw black skin and thought: shoplifter, poor. As this indicates, racial profiling isn’t limited to only low-income black neighborhoods, and certainly doesn’t go away once an individual enters a high tax bracket. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at the time of Whitaker’s arrest, “the promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the ‘middle class,’ will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story.”
You don’t have to dig too deeply in a comments section to see that critics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement often argue that black people should “stop breaking the law” if they want to prevent police violence, racial profiling, and the like. However, Whitaker and Winfrey exemplify what many argue would prevent unwanted scrutiny. And although Khalifa’s outward appearance challenges many mainstream (and racist) values that determine the “respectability” of a black person, he was body-slammed by police for standing—or hovering, as it were.
Of course, when airport personnel are met with an actual threat—say, a white, right-wing extremist with an assault rifle—nary do you see a takedown that comes even close to what Khalifa had to bear.
An exact example of this occurred in late May. Jim Cooley made national news when he brandished a loaded AR-15, complete with a drum magazine with enough ammo to take out a small, poorly armed militia—or at least start his own. In a video shot by Cooley and posted to YouTube, Atlanta police officers approached Cooley and asked him about his gun. His temper quickly flared as he spelled out his inalienable right to carry a locked and loaded assault rifle in an airport. He left without significant incident.
Of course, post-September 11 airports have become an epicenter of racial profiling, especially when it comes to Muslim and Sikh travelers. Mic’s Zak Cheney-Rice writes, “But if you are a Muslim or Sikh, your airport experience is different [from men like Cooley]. Intentionally provoking airport security for the hell of it is not a luxury you have, even if your means are legal. Simply showing up is provocation enough.”
Indeed, Khalifa’s board was, in fact, safe for travel. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Cyboard, a version similar to the board Khalifa owns, “states on its website that these are ‘TSA approved for travel.’”
Imagine the curiosity and bemused looks on the faces of the law enforcement officers had Khalifa been standing on the device as a white man. But that isn’t the case. White supremacy permeates the gaze of security officials, shop clerks, and salespeople, automatically reading blackness as a threat to safety and property. No level of social privilege—even that of a celebrity—can keep black Americans from experiencing the impact of racial profiling in their everyday lives. In Khalifa’s case, he did live to tell his story, but many others who have made national and international headlines have not been so lucky.
But maybe Wiz Khalifa is right. Airport security will likely be on hoverboards before black people can walk freely.
Photo via The Come Up Show/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)