The United Airlines Fiasco: Victim Blaming and Discrimination?

On the surface, the recent United Airlines incident sparked a lot of discussion about airline policy and what they do — and don’t — owe their passengers. But underneath it all lies a disturbing truth about discrimination and victim blaming. While some media outlets stayed focused on the larger issues at hand, others called into question the victim’s character.

The whole incident started a little after passengers at O’Hare International Airport boarded United Airlines Express flight 3411. Once seated, the staff revealed the plane was overbooked, and four people needed to disembark to make room for United crew members. Though they offered $800 vouchers, no one volunteered to get off.

Due to the lack of volunteers, United staff were forced to select four passengers to leave. One of the four was David Dao, a doctor from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. As he had patients to attend to the next day, Dao declined to disembark, prompting the crew to call security. After a brief struggle, security pulled Dao from his seat, causing his head to strike an armrest. They then dragged him from the plane.

What followed was a true media circus. Videos of the event circulated across social media, and national news agencies soon picked up on the story. United Airlines continued to issue ill-worded and misaimed statements. A narrative of race relations and victim blaming emerged.

Victim blaming — the act of either questioning or implying a victim could have taken different actions to prevent an event — is by no means a new concept. According to the Psychology of Violence’s founding editor Sherry Hamby, victim blaming stems from the “just world” hypothesis. It states that many people believe we deserve whatever consequences happen to us.

Looking through this lens, it’s evident that many people practically jumped through hoops to find ways to make Dao responsible for his removal from the flight. For example, news outlets were quick to point out that, in 2003, he was accused of improper conduct with a male patient and illegally prescribing painkillers.

This evidence led to a conviction of multiple felonies and a temporary suspension of his medical license. In 2015, he resumed his practice under strict limits.

Although journalists have every right to research the facts of a story, there is a certain point where what is included becomes superfluous information. In the case of Dao’s removal, his previous run-ins with the law had no bearing on United’s decisions and his forceful removal from the flight.

Digging up this kind of dirt serves no other purpose than to put the blame for this mishandled incident on an innocent man.

Other news sources pushed the angle that, though Dao was wrongly removed, the fault didn’t belong to United. Instead, they blamed the Chicago Aviation Department security officers for the methods they used.

United’s treatment of Dao sparked as much furor abroad as it did in the US. In videos of the confrontation, Dao states he believed officials were profiling him because he is Chinese. The treatment he received soon became a trending topic on Chinese social media site Weibo, quickly gaining more than 100 million views.

As more and more Chinese spoke out, it became apparent that many of them face discrimination in the United States. They often don’t bring attention to it to for cultural reasons. Many voiced concerns that this helps promote a culture in America where discrimination isn’t taken seriously.

What happened on that plane illustrates the issues that many non-Caucasians face in the US every day. Although there is little information on how exactly United staff chose which passengers to remove from the plane, it’s hard to believe that his race didn’t play a large part in the overall narrative.

It seems that many Chinese and Chinese-Americans are using the opportunity to speak out against the chilling effect that has previously covered them. Hopefully, we as a nation can use this incident as a learning experience and eliminate underlying racial motivations behind official actions.

What people need to realize about this incident is that it’s impossible to pin the blame on any sole party. Blaming victims does nothing to mitigate the suffering they go through, and focusing on the organizations puts the focus on who was at fault, rather than what steps to take to fix the issue.

As a whole, this shows that as a nation, we put an excessive amount of energy nitpicking who deserves what and not enough emphasis on fixing what causes our social ills in the first place.

To visualize what David Dao has gone through in the past few weeks is truly disheartening, especially in terms of our progress as a society. After being brutally dragged from his flight, Dao was then unfairly cast into an international spotlight. Dao is still receiving treatment for his injuries, and it has been reported that he’s lawyering up. However, personal injury cases can take months or even years to settle, and Dao will certainly face an uphill battle in attempting to take on a company as large as United Airlines.

Hopefully, this will teach us to handle tense situations calmly. It would behoove us to take a step back and consider whether the use of force is truly justified before resorting to extreme methods.

Is this incident different than blaming a girl for assault depending on how she dresses? There are different contributing factors, but, as a culture, it seems we find it easier to pressure the assaulted rather than the assailant — and that’s something we should work toward changing.