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What I Learned (Not) Flying First Class

I learn the most important moral lessons from daily life.

As I waited in line to board a transcontinental flight, on a route I fly regularly but a carrier that I do not, I realized that those who previously enjoyed privilege feel the most put upon by equal treatment. Thanks to my mileage and loyalty, I had achieved and maintained the highest status on an airline that went bankrupt. In starting over with a competitor, I was relegated to what once was called steerage. As much as the agents, themselves mistreated, strived for decent customer service, I felt as if I were being punished for the duration of the trip.

My discontent is not only wrong of me but also revealing of human nature. My trivial example gives me insight into how we experience entitlements. Although I could not afford it outright, I became accustomed to the upgrade. You get first-class treatment in the first-class cabin. They greet you by name with that “Pan Am” smile — even if, according to scholars, it turns out to be fake. They take your coat. They feed you for free. They pour champagne. You have extra legroom, leather cushions and a fancy reading light.

For six hours before your arrival, you have already “arrived.” Without you or anyone else being so crass to say aloud, you possess the intangible but real sense of exclusivity. When you precede others in the sight of those who would envy, you have established your place, since priority in time is a principle for distributing benefits in society. Under the regime of Jim Crow racial segregation, African-Americans sat at the back of the bus, but they also boarded last, paying up front then walking to the rear.

When people dressed up for air travel – or, to be more pointed, when people who could buy the ticket did so, glamorously ascending the staircase on the tarmac – our class order was less embarrassed. You could be designated “third class” in explicit terms. Nowadays, we prefer our preferences discreet. You don’t want to flaunt your advantages, because some strangers will flout the norms. There is too much risk that the next person disrespects the basic concept that each of us has a station in life, as the Calvinist Pilgrims decreed.

We like our myth of mobility. More than once, as I waited my turn with proof of the premium position, somebody has doubted I belonged. I do not refer to that latent suspicion that anyone who can be identified as a member of a minority group must cultivate, in spite of the criticism from those who deny they are bigots yet insist that our own attitudes explain bias we pretend to perceive. I mean that a stranger has accosted me, as they face my back, to inquire whether I am sure I’m supposed to be there.

Once, over Christmas at the St. Louis airport, where a mural about aviation was installed that included no Black faces (prompting another wall to be painted as a remedy, which the hostile might misinterpret as separatist pride), a White woman wondered aloud to herself to this effect. An African-American lady said to her African-American companion, with a huff, “I am sure she isn’t talking about us,” and I wished to high-five her in solidarity.

Yet an enduring memory I have, dating back to the first election in which I voted, is of a presidential candidate making his way down the aisle to coach class. He had run credibly in a crowded primary and later been appointed to his rival’s Cabinet. When I saw him, he was another middle-aged White man in a business suit, anonymous to all but the few who had voted for his common-sense policies. He did not seem to have even his security detail accompanying him, but perhaps they had been bumped due to overbooking.

Later, after his retirement, I happened to meet him as the former boss of a senior colleague, and I informed him of how I had been impressed. He shrugged it off, confirming his modesty was characteristic yet extraordinary.

The problem of privilege, no different than ignorance, is that it need not acknowledge itself. I am as culpable as any of us. Yet for a few, the rank they hold, earned or not, is permanent. The rest of us are aware our situation is but temporary. You lose luxuries. Then you notice.

Frank H. Wu is a Distinguished Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean.

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