‘Serial Stowaway’ puts spotlight on implicit bias

Do you really think a Black man or a Middle Eastern woman would have gotten past TSA once, let alone repeatedly, without a boarding pass?

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Marilyn Hartman, the so-called serial stowaway, has been arrested at airports around the country for years. Sometimes she’s picked up for boarding planes illegally, others at different airport spots. | Chicago Police Department via AP

Chicago Police Department via AP file photo

Marilyn Hartman, the so-called “Serial Stowaway,” is working her white privilege to the max.

CBS News anchor Brad Edwards interviewed Hartman by phone. Two days after the report aired, Hartman managed to slip away from a residential mental facility while wearing an ankle monitoring device.

Hartman, 69, is a Houdini when it comes to getting past those scowling TSA agents that scan your boarding pass and check your ID before letting you into the areas where they screen travelers for prohibited items.

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“I’m an old white woman. Nobody stops me,” Hartman once bragged after being caught trying to sneak on a plane.

That explains it. Doesn’t it?

Hartman has boarded about 30 flights since 2002 without paying, according to the interview. Instead of being shunned like the scofflaw she is, she’s been handled like “Miss Daisy.”

Worse yet, she was aided and abetted by all those TSA security people who couldn’t bring themselves to challenge an “old white woman.” I don’t know who they saw when they encountered Hartman: their silver-haired grandmother who could do no wrong?

What they didn’t see was a threat—and that’s a problem. “I’ve never been able to board a plane by myself. I was always let through. I mean, I was able to go through the security line without a boarding pass,” Hartman told Edwards in the recorded telephone interview.

After Hartman got through a checkpoint, she boarded the plane and talked her way into a seat without causing a scene. Frankly, if I showed up at the airport without proper credentials, I could have called up the newspaper and got my editor on the phone, and it isn’t likely I would have been allowed on the flight.

Hartman has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which explains her bizarre behavior. But what explains our reaction?

She has stacked up numerous arrests for boarding planes without a ticket and for trespassing at airports. Yet she’s become some folk hero.

Many of us have more compassion for Hartman’s plight than we would have for a homeless man caught stealing food from the local Walmart. Until now, the court system has been more concerned about getting Hartman mental health treatment than in punishing her, and rightfully so.

The woman obviously can’t help herself. In March of 2019, Hartman was sentenced to 18 months probation after pleading guilty to a criminal trespassing charge.

Seven months later, she was back at O’Hare — without a paid ticket — in violation of her probation. TSA agents stopped her when she tried to enter an area restricted to those with boarding passes. Tuesday’s arrest could subject Hartman to a felony escape charge, as well as a criminal trespassing charge.

In her interview with CBS News, Hartman blamed the TSA agents for letting her enter without a boarding pass. The unanswered question for TSA is why was it so easy for Hartman to board a plane without the proper credentials in the first place?

Hartman benefited from other people’s unconscious bias — stereotypes that people attribute to another person or group — in this case, to gray-haired white women. If Hartman were a Black man or a Middle Eastern woman wearing a hijab, no amount of talking would have convinced a TSA agent to let her slip past.

Hartman told CBS News she “purposely remained a mystery because of the ‘crazy factor.’ This is something out of the movie. This is crazy,” she said. It is crazy.

But for many Black Americans, the “Serial Stowaway” confirms what we already know.

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