Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Travel Weekly's survey on diversity and inclusion, posted earlier this week, drew a rather stark conclusion: while the majority of white respondents -- 61% -- believed the travel industry was doing well as regards diversity and inclusion, the majority of Black respondents -- also 61% -- did not.

So, where do we go from here? 

I don't know, but my reflections on the subject are influenced by the book "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent," by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020), which puts American race relations in the context of a well-constructed caste system, with Blacks on the bottom rung. Wilkerson finds parallels among the African American experience in the U.S., India's religion-based caste hierarchy and Nazi Germany's methodical relegation of Jews to a subhuman category.

The book's paradigm suggests that the disconnect between Blacks and whites in the travel industry is an expected reflection of the larger chasm that informs most perceptions about racial disparity in America. Awareness of the depth of the gap is low among whites because, Wilkerson posits, a white person's biased view of Black people is culturally programmed; it's bias without awareness of bias.

Within the travel industry in particular, the disconnect in perception is likely amplified by the very nature of the industry and what draws people to it. Travel planning often brings people from diverse backgrounds together; it celebrates inclusiveness. But the survey indicates that is not enough to guarantee that travel professionals are uniformly aware of those deep-seated biases in all their professional dealings.

If nothing else, the Travel Weekly survey should raise awareness among the majority of white travel professionals that they have misjudged Black sentiment about diversity and inclusiveness in the industry. And while the situation may have no quick fixes, an increased sensitivity to Black perception of industry shortcomings may, for some whites, be a starting point.

And just as the everyday dangers faced by Black citizens in the U.S. were first recognized by many whites only after viewing the video of the  killing of George Floyd this past summer, revisiting past patterns of bias should likewise move the discussion forward.

This week marks the 65th anniversary of the public bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., a seminal event in the civil rights movement that brought to prominence the courage of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man, and the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., who was instrumental in leading the boycott.

Stephen Reed, mayor of Montgomery, Ala.
Stephen Reed, mayor of Montgomery, Ala.

I spoke earlier this week to Montgomery's mayor, Steven Reed, to discuss his city's potential to use tourism as a vehicle to raise awareness and increase sensitivity about continuing racial inequities.

Reed, the first African-American mayor of Alabama's capital city, was raised with a keen awareness of Montgomery's role in the struggle for civil rights. His mother had grown up in the same town as Coretta Scott King, who was a frequent overnight guest in Reed's home. And when Reed's father was a student at Alabama State University, Martin Luther King Jr., who was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, mentored him to be a student leader and organizer in nonviolent demonstrations. 

Awareness of what went on in Montgomery in the '60s, Mayor Reed said, "is in my DNA." The city, he added, is a living monument to "common men, women and children with uncommon courage."

Dawn Hathcock, SVP for tourism of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce
Dawn Hathcock, SVP for tourism of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce

I also spoke to Dawn Hathcock, senior vice president for tourism of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce. Pre-Covid, tourism had brought in about $1.5 million per day, with visitors primarily attracted by civil rights-related sites. Visitation had been fueled by "travel with a purpose," she said, and she described the components of Montgomery tourism.

Listening to her, it became clear that Montgomery is a model for how tourism itself can be a tool to heighten sensitivity between the races.
Leadership teams from large corporations, Hathcock said, come to Montgomery for retreats or conferences and "if they want a session on diversity and inclusion, we can help arrange that. Or if they want a two- or three-day conference just on that topic, we can help fill that, too."

Hathcock said that among the local speakers the chamber recruits are citizens who participated in the 382-day bus boycott.

I would suspect that, once we can all travel freely again, Montgomery and perhaps other cities involved in the civil rights movement will attract even more corporate gatherings.

Wilkerson's book, "Caste," would seem to suggest that although Montgomery's history may make it symbolically important, the problems it faced were hardly isolated, nor are events related to discrimination exclusively Southern nor necessarily historic.

Regardless of where professionals gather, finding speakers with first-hand insights regarding exclusion and discrimination should not be difficult. To change perceptions, spreading awareness is the critical first step. 

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