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Don’t Miss This Seminal Moment for Racial Justice, Travel Industry

Dennis Schaal, Skift
Don’t Miss This Seminal Moment for Racial Justice, Travel Industry

One of my favorite expressions, which seems particularly appropriate as U.S. cities burn anew, is “a luta continua,” Portuguese for “the struggle continues.” Because 52 years after the 1968 uprisings and riots, which were triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and so much more, one can make the argument that not much has really changed.

A white cop killed George Floyd and applied a knee to the black man’s neck, and left it there for two minutes and 53 seconds after he became unresponsive, and President Trump vilified black National Football league players for taking a knee during on-field protests a couple of years earlier.

Ahmaud Arbery appears to have been guilty of being black while jogging and gets gunned down in Georgia, while the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States has disproportionately impacted blacks in big cities and Navajo Indians on their reservations.

Relevance for the Travel Industry

What does U.S. cities’ aflame and the deep despondency this represents mean for the travel industry?

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After all, the travel industry — in theory —should be built on inclusivity because the foundation of travel is discovery, and meeting and doing business with people from different cultures, races, ethnic groups, genders, and viewpoints, and breaking down barriers. Whether it is travel agents, flight attendants or hoteliers, travel staff should be almost inherently progressive if they believe in their companies’ missions, right?

OK, that’s naive. Despite all the business rhetoric about stakeholder capitalism, the vast majority of businesses are still focused on the bottom line, and the coronavirus pandemic has mostly relegated notions of corporate responsibility to seemingly anachronistic headlines.

We all should know that the travel industry can be just as unforgiving, obstinate and oppressive as many other parts of U.S. society. Let’s face it: The travel industry has fallen way short on diversity and inclusion, whether it be gender- or race-based, well before the pandemic. Even among some of the prominent companies that “talk the talk” about diversity and inclusion, board membership tends to be majority white men, and too often the old boys’ network is still running the show behind the scenes.

Marriott talks a lot about diversity and inclusion, and the chain has indeed taken some bold, progressive stances, but when it came to nationwide strikes against Marriott in 2018, workers told stories of their employment hours being chopped, jobs being outsourced, and of scurrying to find a couple of jobs just to try and subsist to support a family. We don’t need to pick on Marriott; other brands have track records that are substantially worse.

Let’s face it, too: With leisure and hospitality unemployment officially running close to 40 percent in the U.S., Covid-19 has wiped out diversity as a priority almost across the board. It’s often the way things go in business — last hired, first fired. Women and minorities in the travel industry find themselves disproportionately represented on socially distant or virtual unemployment lines these days.

Social Justice

There has to be a new commitment in the U.S. travel industry to not only advocate for diversity and inclusion, but also for broader social justice for employees and communities. That means affirmative action programs, commitments to providing employees with living wages, including the right to unionization, and to transform leadership so that it’s representative of diverse surrounding communities.

Fat paychecks and stock options that have CEOs earning compensation hundreds of times greater than the median wages of their employees can no longer be tolerated.

The travel industry needs to be in the forefront of pushing for educational opportunities, including providing computer equipment for virtual learning, and wide-ranging training and internship programs, for minority students and workers.

The Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room is the great divider and race-baiter/women-basher in the White House. The travel industry, from the U.S. Travel Association to the lowliest travel startup, can no longer sit idly by and silent in the name of neutrality and or out of timidity, when Trump plays on fear and loathing of women and minorities.

I envision the emails already: There goes Skift being political again. But you can’t truly believe in the promise of travel and cultural understanding, and then go along with the policies of a president who seeks to divide the country and amp up racism and sexism to his own benefit.

Kudos to Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson for being among the first travel industry leaders to speak out about Honoring George Floyd with Real Change.

“For many years, I have tried to use my perch at Marriott to advocate for opportunity for all. Regardless of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, abilities, wealth and educational background or any other point of human difference, each person deserves to be recognized for who we are and respected for both our common humanity and the distinct qualities that make us unique,” Sorenson wrote. “Each deserves an opportunity to get joy and gratification from their work and to feel a sense of purpose and pride about the footsteps they leave behind in the world.”

Still, Sorenson’s words and sympathetic sentiments are not enough at this moment in U.S. history. Systemic change is in order, and it’s not just about respect and recognition for “the people who work with or for us, the people who serve us, the people we see in our communities …,” as Sorenson wrote, as lovely as that might sound.

Few are speaking out publicly, however. CEOs of other major brands have chosen to address their companies internally, and we know of one household name travel company that delayed a policy or product announcement Tuesday out of respect for the protests. Another major brand is ready to announce some concrete actions, but it wasn’t ready at publication time.

Misguided Optimism?

If you were expecting some inspirational thoughts here about the outlook for change or travel’s role in it, then guess again.

The U.S. travel industry is bogged down in its own business survival at the moment. With thousands of restaurants and hotels shuttered, and airlines grounded, many of which may never reopen or fly commercially again, these businesses are bogged with figuring out how to keep paying bills.

The United States is deeply divided — not only among Democrats and Republicans, die-hard Trump voters and Trump haters, but also among many blacks and whites who often see the world through different lenses. There is deep anger among the alienated and aggrieved, which has parallels in rising nationalist movements globally, and there are few signs of progress. If Trump is defeated in November, his movement doesn’t go away, and the forces that don’t really mind murder by cop, or might mumble “they’re getting what they deserve,” won’t fade away.

The uprisings of 1968 and 2020 did and will show — candidly — a couple of things. The first lesson is that that civil unrest, ugly as it can be, produces change. The second lesson is that to maintain progress takes constant pressure — that’s where the expression “a luta continua” comes in again — and that is extremely difficult to do as the pendulum periodically swings toward reform and regression again and again.

The 1968 riots produced the Fair Housing Act of 1968 but we’ve repeatedly seen the lack of affordable housing for black and brown people, and single moms and their kids; we’ve witnessed a ceaseless string of murders of black men by racist cops; domestic violence ticking upwards during the pandemic, and generations of Americans, with only morsels instead of a real piece of the proverbial pie.

When it comes up for air, the travel industry needs to step up to support and nurture the forces of change — and it would be much better off for doing so.

Correction: The white cop kept his neck for two minutes and 53 seconds on George Floyd’s neck area after he became unresponsive, and not merely for a full minute minute.

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