Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Last week, I suggested in this column that those promoting domestic destinations take steps to ensure that African American travelers will feel welcome, safe and accepted when traveling in their own country.

After reading it, Kier Matthews, a director of sales for Classic Vacations, wrote to me: "Let me know when you have time to chat about your article. It was good, but I want to make sure a vital voice/point is not missed."

I called Matthews, an industry friend who is African American. He said he has been posting his perspectives and relevant news articles on social media and had been getting "five to six calls a day" from black colleagues who, like him, had not seen enough attention paid to what he feels is the biggest issue regarding race and travel: "We're frustrated that an industry that receives $63 billion from African American travelers does not have proportionate representation in travel corporations at all levels.

"In particular, senior levels."

There are high-profile exceptions to his concern, but you know the saying about exceptions and rules. Matthews noted that the thin ranks of African American travel executives have become thinner as a result of Covid-19- related layoffs. Former Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford is gone, and Matthews also named two lower-level travel executives who were casualties of the recent rounds of major industry layoffs.

"I'm not trying to blame anyone, but I do want to have a dialogue about why, for example, if there are so many black people on cruise ships, there are so few black people who report to the top cruise executives? In other words: no bench. For the most part, we are not in public-facing roles," he said.

Matthews spoke about the burden of considerations that African Americans in the travel industry -- or in any industry -- must weigh, which their white counterparts likely don't have to think about. "We're taught that if we do get into a position of authority, it doesn't look good if the majority of our hires are black. Your credibility will be hurt. And we have to balance being courageous without being confrontational.

"There has to be something more that comes out of this moment than statements," he continued. "Change must occur. Will companies begin to go to historically black colleges to recruit? Will they ensure equal pay for black versus white employees? If all your senior executives are white, it's just not going to cut it. The way to make black people feel safe at work is for them to see black co-workers at all levels, up to and including executives."

I write all this knowing I live in a glass house. My parent company, Northstar Travel Group, does not yet have proportionate minority representation in its executive suite or ranks. But it's in the process of awakening. Prior to when recent issues related to systemic racism began appearing in headlines, Northstar formed a diversity and inclusion committee, and our CEO, Tom Kemp, signed the CEO Act!on pledge, publicly acknowledging that diversity and inclusiveness are a company priority.

Matthews said he believes we have arrived at a critical point in history. "This is the #MeToo moment for #BlackLivesMatter," he said. "And with the protests in the streets, every industry, including travel, has to recognize that black lives do matter."

Matthews told me that he lives in a predominantly white neighborhood, and he and his daughter watched from their living room as 20 white supremacists donned swastikas and pulled out Confederate flags -- "Here, in woke Seattle!" -- to prepare a counterdemonstration. He said his daughter begged him to pull their blinds and not leave the house.

"I think one thing that's different is that white folks are hearing it from their children, too," he said. "Their children are angry that their parents haven't taken action before now."

Matthews emphasized that he doesn't think the travel industry is intentionally biased. "I've worked in the industry for 23 years, and I love it; partnerships have turned into friendships. I hope that sharing my voice in this moment can help us all do better.

"But just today, three black travel agents, independent contractors, reached out to me saying, 'What should we do?' My answer was to affiliate with a black-owned host agency. Or start one. Economics speak strongly."

I agree with Matthews that this moment is a historic moment. Back in 2014, I wrote about the lack of African American presence in the industry and assigned a cover story about the status of black travel professionals. I got zero response or feedback from readers after they were published. But now, we have a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of the industry as regards diversity, and we shouldn't squander it.

"We need to do better" has been said thousands of times these past few weeks.

But you know the saying about where a road paved with good intentions leads.

Yes, "we need to do better." Will we? 

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