According to the government, the full-body scanners that are standard at airports cost about $150,000 each. In the last decade or so, the Transportation Security Administration has invested over $100 million on the scanners, which are called "millimeter wave machines."
Unfortunately, these machines have a major flaw. They can detect non-metallic objects, but they can't tell what they are. And that includes hair -- especially African-American women's hair. The machines create a false alarm when people have Afros or wear dreadlocks, braids or twists. They also set false alarms on turbans, wigs and hair extensions.
These false alarms cause stress and embarrassment for those pulled aside for additional screening. Moreover, the additional pat-down searches, which are required by law whenever the machines alarm, cost the public time and money.
The reality is, these machines can't identify threats. They can only set off an alarm that causes a human being to assess the threat.
The problem is serious enough that last summer, the TSA asked vendors for suggestions "to improve screening of headwear and hair in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act." That law prohibits federal agencies from discriminating based on race, color or national origin, even if the discriminatory behavior is unintentional.
According to a senior TSA official who spoke anonymously with ProPublica, the agency has found no evidence that screeners intentionally target African-American women or people wearing turbans for additional screening.
That said, agents are free to single out people for additional screening if their hair appears to be able to hide a prohibited object. That level of discretion could lead to racial profiling.
Black women complain of being searched every time they fly
According to ProPublica, one woman was singled out for a pat-down search on her second, third, and fourth-ever trips by air. Each time, she had her hair styled differently. The styles included short twists, an Afro and a short Afro no more than three inches long.
In her case, it wasn't even due to a screening machine's false alarm. The woman told ProPublica that she hadn't gone through the scanner before she was searched.
"It doesn't feel random when it happens three times in a row. It doesn't feel random when you see that all the people around you, who don't look like you, aren't asked to step aside," she commented.
In America, there is a long history of discrimination against African-American women based on their hair including, until recently, U.S. military restrictions on hairstyles. The TSA needs to understand that being searched for having an African-American hairstyle is more than a momentary bother.