TSA watch: Is it “casual conversation” — or racial profiling?

A few minutes after Vance Gilbert’s recent flight from Boston to Washington pulled away from the gate, the aircraft made a U-turn and returned to the terminal. Authorities had a few questions for him before they could clear his flight for takeoff. What kind of book was he reading? And why hadn’t he stowed his fanny pack in the overhead bin, as a flight attendant had suggested?

Gilbert, a popular folk musician who lives in Arlington, Mass., has unwittingly become a poster boy for the TSA’s pilot behavior-detection program — a new screening technique that is almost certainly coming soon to an airport near you.

As it turns out, Gilbert had perfectly valid answers to both questions. An amateur aviation historian, he was studying a book about World War II-era Polish aircraft. The fanny pack contained his wallet, so he tucked it underneath the seat in front of him.

But Gilbert believes that he was singled out because he is “a 6-foot-tall, bespectacled, slightly graying, 52-year-old, 230-pound African American male with a close hair cut.” In other words, that he was the target of racial profiling.
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