What if we had stood up to the TSA before?

People are in an uproar about the new TSA full body scanners and invasive searches. And for good reason, as myself and many others believe they constitute an invasion of bodily autonomy and a form of sexual harassment. But I have to wonder if we would be here today if this much noise had been made about previous discriminatory and invasive TSA policies.

Here’s the thing: airport security has been problematic for a long time. Since 9/11 security checkpoints have become a major site for racial and religious profiling, something that is still very much going on today with rules that target Muslims. Transgender and gender non-conforming folks became a target when the Secure Flight program began requiring travelers to match the gender on their IDs. There were of course social justice responses, but nothing on the scale of the backlash we are hearing now. And the new security procedures only increase the danger for and potential targeting of trans folks.

All of this makes me wonder: what would have happened if we had heard an outcry like the one we are hearing now when the TSA was mostly a problem for trans folks and those targeted by racial profiling? What if everyone was this upset by threats to the rights of minority groups?

This is why I believe in building our politics around the needs of the most marginalized. People who experience oppression as members of a marginalized group may benefit marginally from work done to win rights for people with more power and privilege, but generally their needs will be ignored. If someone is experiencing racial or gender profiling that the general public does not experience that needs to be addressed directly.

However, those with power and privilege do benefit when victories are won for those in the margins. Their issues would not be excluded by politics that center the needs of those with less power and privilege. Further, they might not even have to face a certain issue: if this kind of uproar had happened around racial profiling or the Secure Flight program maybe the TSA would have learned that threats to personal liberty are not an acceptable way to maintain “security” and that they would need to find other methods.

Standing up for the needs of the most marginalized in a given situation isn’t just the right thing to do: I believe it is the strategic action to take to avoid increased discrimination or oppression in the future and to win victories that benefit the most people. The current situation with the TSA reads to me, as a member of the transgender community who has been concerned about TSA policies for a long time now, as a sign of what happens when not enough attention is paid when marginalized folks are getting screwed.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

Read more about Jos

Join the Conversation

  • spiffy-mcbang

    No, we wouldn’t be here if this level of complaining had been done previously, but you can make a similar point about anything that suffers from a snowball effect. Probably a more important question is, why wasn’t this fuss made previously?

    Matt Yglesias has a post up today along these lines. As he points out, the outrage is “80 percent middle class white people not liking the idea of being placed in the subordinate position of a dominance hierarchy, 19 percent about yearning for America to adopt institutionalized racism as the lodestar of our transportation security policy, and maybe one percent about liberty.”

    IMO, this is where the crux of it lies. For all the increasing diversity in America, middle class and up white people are still the force that often makes or breaks change. The complaints now are basically symbolic of the fact that group has reached the point of feeling unnecessarily put-upon. If there’s a lesson to be learned, for better or worse, it might be that getting them outraged is the way to make shit happen.

    Basically, be like Fox News, except for things that aren’t spiteful and wrongheaded.

    • http://feministing.com/members/anderz/ Anders

      Middle- and upper-class white people do have a ton of inertia (even if it’s mostly the inertia of bodies at rest staying at rest.) But social justice movements also have a lot of inertia, and we’re not just middle- and upper-class white people. Think about all the Christians, for example, who could have rallied against Muslims being targeted by the TSA. Really, it just requires you to ask someone else what they need most from your group, and if everyone outside the white middle/upper-class started doing that, we’d get a helluva lot more done than they are. I totally understand what you’re saying, I just want to resist this idea that we need them MORE than they need us.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sharon/ Shavaun Jamieson

    Great post, Jos! Thanks for this.

  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I think most people simply don’t care, on a fundamental level, about bad things happening to strangers who they don’t think of as like themselves.

    If you want to change that, you have to have the issue affect them personally, have them meet and interact with the affected people, or broaden their view on which strangers are like them.

    • honeybee

      Bingo, agree 100%.

  • http://feministing.com/members/radicalhw/ Shannon Drury

    This post beautifully captures what I’ve been feeling ever since the shit hit the proverbial fan. Middle class, cis-gendered white folks (like me, I admit) are experiencing the harassment that others in our society have experienced for years. Witness this pretty young thing’s reaction at The Stir: “no one has the right to ogle or touch my body without due cause.” She barely pauses a space bar before she adds: “until a bunch of green-eyed, blonde, twenty-something females start using commercial airliners for terrorist attacks, or I personally act in a suspicious manner, please leave my private parts alone.” http://thestir.cafemom.com/in_the_news/112517/naked_scanners_or_body_groping
    The marginalized speak out first, and we ignore them at our peril.

  • http://feministing.com/members/xocoatl/ Pat

    Which group is the most marginalized group?

  • http://feministing.com/members/dark_morgaine_le_fey/ dark_morgaine_le_fey

    This reminds me of the quote by Pastor Martin Niemöller about Nazi Germany:

    They came first for the Communists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
    Then they came for me
    and by that time no one was left to speak up.

    Okay, we aren’t rounding “suspicious” – read: Arab – people up and taking them to concentration camps anymore (at least not yet – we in the U.S. have done it before.) Basically, we have this assumption that because one group of terrorists were Arab Muslims, all the others will be. This is people as well as government. After September 11, everyone freaked out. It was a tragedy, no one can deny that, but in the long run, what did Al Qaeda do? They destroyed buildings and killed nearly 3,000 people. This is awful, and we don’t want a repeat. But in the long run, Americans took the response to far. We weren’t used to people attacking us. We were supposed to be safe, secured between two oceans, and people freaked out when their illusions were shattered.

    Now it’s 9 years later, and we’re still here, and there hasn’t been another major attack. Yet we all still live in fear that anything could happen, and white cis-gendered middle-class people are still willing to allow other people to be profiled to protect our safety (yes, I am white, cis and middle-class too). Now that it is we, and our children, who are being profiled and groped by TSA agents, suddenly everyone’s up in arms.

    However, we can use the anger to help not just the white cis middle class, but marginalized people as well.