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Southwest employee accused white mom of trafficking her Black daughter, lawsuit says

Southwest Airlines planes taxi at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in July 2019. Southwest is facing a discrimination suit after an employee allegedly reported a passenger to police on suspicion of child trafficking.
Ross D. Franklin
/
AP
Southwest Airlines planes taxi at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in July 2019. Southwest is facing a discrimination suit after an employee allegedly reported a passenger to police on suspicion of child trafficking.

Mary MacCarthy and her 10-year-old were already dreading the trip from California to Colorado; they were headed to a funeral for MacCarthy's brother. But their day got even worse after flying Southwest Airlines.

After the two boarded the plane to Denver in October 2021, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, a Southwest flight attendant alerted the Denver Police Department that MacCarthy may be a child trafficker. The employee's alleged explanation was that the skin color of MacCarthy and her daughter did not match.

The flight attendant never spoke to MacCarthy or her daughter during the flight, according to the civil complaint.

Soon after landing at the Denver International Airport, MacCarthy, who is white, was interrogated by two armed police officers while her daughter, who is Black, sobbed in fear and confusion. The two were let go, after MacCarthy showed her ID card and explained her reason for traveling.

MacCarthy and her daughter sued Southwest in the District Court of Colorado, accusing the airline company of racial discrimination against her mixed-race family and for causing a traumatic incident that still affects her daughter two years later.

The lawsuit alleges that "this display of blatant racism by Southwest Airlines caused Ms. MacCarthy and her daughter extreme emotional
distress."

"The whole incident was based on a racist assumption about a mixed‐race family. This is the type of situation that mixed‐race families and families of color face all too frequently while traveling," the lawsuit said.

The complaint also said that Southwest has a history of racial profiling mixed-raced familes. In January 2021, flight attendants pulled Luca Guerreri, a white man traveling with his Black daughter, off of a Southwest plane after suspecting him of human trafficking. Guerreri later sent a complaint to the airline, according to the suit.

MacCarthy and her daughter allege that the airlines have failed to take steps to "correct the racist assumptions of its employees make about mixed-race families traveling together," the suit said.

Southwest declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.