Always Right

TSA Pre-Check Your Privilege

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images and iStock.

For years I stood stewing in airport security lines, wishing there was a way to sidle past the inconvenience and stress. While I waited in line, sweated out the body scanner, fumbled with my shoes, endured being “randomly selected” for additional screening, the select few simply waltzed on by. I could never be Delta Premiere Supreme-o Black Gold Status or whatever, like them, I thought.

I was wrong. The day my TSA Pre-Check authorization arrived in my email was a glorious one. For a still-painful but not impossible $85, I could transform myself. My stress levels don’t spike until after I’ve passed through the gate and discover my flight has been delayed two hours. In fact, to a traveler of color, TSA Pre-Check opens up a brand new world of travel entitlement. As writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe so eloquently put it recently:

No longer does the gentle whoosh of the automatic doors at the departure terminal inspire fear: How long is the line? Did I cut it too close? Is someone going to single me out and search my bag while I stand nervously awaiting his verdict? Instead, I show the attendant standing in front of the practically empty Pre-Check queue my ticket bearing the adorable little logo, and they wave me on through. As if I’m a white student at Harvard, no one second-guesses my presence in that line once I’m through—I don’t have to show my credentials over and over or respond to people wondering if the only reason I got there is because of reparations. Flats or sneakers? It doesn’t matter. Like a white kid traipsing around in a hoodie at night, I can wear whatever I want to get on my plane—I am devoid of all cares, and no TSA agent bothers me. An acquaintance of mine, who is Muslim, tells me that his brother enrolled in the program out of frustration with being subjected to frequent “random” searches every time he flew. As he put it, “It changed the game for him. Now, he just slides right in.” The icing on the cake, of course, is that subtle but very real feeling of pride and smugness as the bleary-eyed plebeians suffer in the “normal” line. It’s whiteness with all the perks, none of the guilt.

Well, a little of the guilt. Eighty-five dollars isn’t nothing, and TSA Pre-Check is just another symptom of the class divide plaguing our nation. But don’t forget that class is and has always been entwined with race, and people of color get the short end of that stick all the time. (For black people especially, it’s only getting worse.) The experience of having a typically fraught situation made blessedly easy is not something often afforded to people of color, even if they do have money. But the process of Pre-Check allows an ephemeral, soothing walk in a white person’s shoes—the ability to be treated just like your other “elite” peers, which is to say, infinitely better than everyone else.

Also, while I’ve had my TSA Pre-Check number for almost a year now, it wasn’t until Adejuyigbe helpfully pointed out how this process mimics the fundamental state of whiteness in America that I began to consider my participation in that light. If that isn’t white privilege, I don’t know what is.