'Do you belong here?': Lawsuits allege Hilton, other hotels discriminated against Black guests (2023)

Albert Law had checked into the Hilton Richmond Downtown in Virginia's capital and was waiting in the lobby when a security guard approached himwith a question. It floored him.

"Do you belong here?" the guard inquired, demanding to see his room key and identification. As the only Black person seated near several white people –none of whom was asked the same question –Law was deeply offended, he said in an interview.

"It's a level of humiliation you can never get out of your head," said Law, a software executive from the Atlanta suburbs who had come to the hotel fora law enforcement administrators conferencein March 2018.

Lawis one of several Black peoplewho filed lawsuitsalleging they were confrontedabout their presence at hotels where they were visitors orregistered guests. In some instances, hotel staff called or threatened to call police.

Though it's the kind of harassment that could occur at any brand of hotel, several discrimination lawsuitsinvolved Hilton properties. At least one was lodged against a Marriott hotel, and Choice Hotels had its own in 2010.

Though the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to collective soul searching about the issue of racial profiling by police,an attorney who isrepresenting andinvestigating eight race discrimination casesinvolving Hilton-brand hotelsquestioned whetherBlack peoplecan receive fair and equal treatment while traveling.

'Do you belong here?': Lawsuits allege Hilton, other hotels discriminated against Black guests (1)

"Hilton invites unbridled discrimination by encouraging hotel staff to confront persons in public areas and demand that they prove their right to be there," said Jason Kafoury, an attorney in Portland, Oregon, who is handling the Law case and others, all involving Blackplaintiffs. "When guests take offense at being singled out, police are called."

Hilton said it has a zero-tolerance policy against racism or discrimination. "We expect all guest engagement, including when and how a guest may be approached, to be completely free of bias," spokesman Nigel Glennie said in a statement.

Although it said it could not comment on Law's lawsuit, the Hilton Richmond Downtown said in a statement, "It is our policy to ensure that every guest feels welcomed. We train our team members to do everything in theirpower to deliver an optimal experience, including looking after the safety andsecurity of our guests."

Some hotels need to do a better job of training or weeding out employees whose "personal biases come shining through in the service they provide us,” said Margie Jordan,a vice president at the CCRA Travel Commerce Networkwho has written about "traveling while Black."

Last month,a Blackwoman posted avideo of two police officers and a white hotel employee confronting her as her two children played in the swimming pool at a Hampton Inn, a Hilton brand, in Williamston, North Carolina. They demanded proof she was staying at the hotel.

"I feel it's discrimination. I have a room here," the womansaid, holdingup her room key.

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AttorneyBen Crump, who is lead counsel for Floyd's family, said in a statement on Twitter that he represents the womanand that the hotel's actions smacked of injustice.

"For a hotel employee to DEMAND to see proof of being a guest only from the Black person and not from White people using the pool is BLATANT DISCRIMINATION," he tweeted. Calling the police, he said, is harassment.

The global head of Hampton, Shruti Gandhi Buckley,said the hotel employee whosingled out the woman is no longer employed by the hotel.

'An assumption that someone isn't in the right space'

There was discrimination in the hotel industry before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964,which made it illegal to discriminate by race in public accommodations such ashotels.

Discrimination persists, butit may appear differentlyas"an assumption that someone isn’t in the right spaceor assumption that someone doesn’t belong and so something happens that shouldn’t happen as a result," Angela Onwuachi-Willig,dean of Boston University School of Law, told USA TODAY.

Racist experiences can add uplike "death by a thousand cuts," she said. "People don'tthink about the cumulative impact of those kinds of indignities in someone’s life."

'Can happen to anyone like me'

'Do you belong here?': Lawsuits allege Hilton, other hotels discriminated against Black guests (2)

Richard Willock of Madison, Mississippi, checked into a Hampton Inn in Nashville, Tennessee, in October 2018 with his son, who was attending a baseball camp at Vanderbilt University. A sports fan and coach, Willock was watching two games in the lobby– one on his iPad and the other on television–when he was approached by the front office manager, his lawsuit said. She asked if he was a guest and demanded his name and room number.

When Willock asked why he was singled out in a lobby filled with other people, some of whom appeared to be drunken Halloween revelers, the manager left and returned with a security guard, his lawsuit said.

"I gave her my room number, hoping that would settle what she wanted, but she continued on pressing me," Willock said in an interview. When she threatened to call the police, he said he told her, "Good luck with that because I have a son upstairs sleeping, and I am not going anywhere."

Willock said he stood his ground, "not knowing how this was going to play out," but another desk clerk interceded, saying she remembered him checking in.

"It's fearful and needs to be brought to light," he said of the incident. "It's something that can happen to anyone like me."

Chartwell Hospitality, the hotel management company of that Hampton Inn, said in a statement to USA TODAY that the companyand its employees "do not discriminate against any individuals or groups. Our property employee quickly de-escalated the situation, and Mr. Willock completed his stay without any law enforcement interaction. We intend to defend this case fully on its merits."

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'He looks like someone we don't want here'

'Do you belong here?': Lawsuits allege Hilton, other hotels discriminated against Black guests (3)

Arnold Kemp went to the Palmer House, a Hilton hotel across the street from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is dean of graduate studies, last October to meet a staff member. He went to the bar, then the lobby, where he met his friend,according to a synopsis prepared by his attorney. Almost as soon as he sat down, a plainclothes hotel security officer appeared and asked the woman if she knew Kemp.

“Yes, he’s my boss,” the woman said, to which the officer replied, “Well, he looks like someone we don’t want here,” according to Kemp.

Kempsaid he returned the next day to complain at the front deskand got the brushoff. His lawyersannounced this week they filed a discrimination complaint.

"I am at the top of my field, and if people like me don’t feel empowered to speak up and try to change institutional racism, it’s not going to change in this country," he said in an interview.

Meg Ryan, a Hilton spokesperson, said Kemp received a phone call and apology from the hotel."In the days that followed, the hotel general manager attempted to contact Mr. Kemp to offer a conversation, hear directly about what happened, and ask how the situation could be made right. Mr. Kemp did not respond to this outreach," Ryan said.

White clerk called police on Black guests

'Do you belong here?': Lawsuits allege Hilton, other hotels discriminated against Black guests (4)

Delores Corbett, her husband and two kids checked into a Hampton Inn in Wilson, North Carolina, in November 2018.

Thefamily members, who are Black,stayed overnight. The next morning, Corbett went to the front desk to resolve a billing issue. The hotel claimed that she hadn't paid for her room and that her credit card had been declined, her lawsuit said. Corbett tried to explain that she bought the room using points onher Hilton affinity card account. The white female hotel clerk called police.

Fearful of how the situation could escalate and that police might harm her son, Corbett and her daughter hurriedly packed up their room, and the family left by car. They said police followed them out of the lot. They received an apology letter from a manager, which, among other things, said the billing mistake was caused by the hotel, not the family.

Hilton spokesmanGlennie said company records show Hilton worked to resolve the complaint in 2018.

The hotel's owner, Patco, sent a statement to USA TODAY saying the lawsuit has no merit, that the incident was handled properly in "accordance with Hilton’s sensitivity programmingand our guest assistance team worked to understand, listen and address the concerns expressed at the time." It said Patco is committed to providing a diverse and inclusive culture with zero tolerance for racism.

'I was racially profiled'

Jermaine Massey, a guest at theDoubleTree by Hilton Portland in Oregon, said hotel officialssummoned police after seeing him talking on the phone with his mother in the lobby.

"I was racially profiled and treated unfairly for no other reason, other than from my point of view … my race," Massey said in a series of Instagram videos in December 2018. "There were other patrons in the lobby at that time. None of them were questioned … and I was."

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He said he was approached by a white hotel security guard who demanded to know his room number and confirmedthat he was, indeed, a guest.

Massey said he confirmed he was a guest at the hotel, and since he was having a phone conversation, he asked the guard if he could "leave me aloneright now?"

Thehotel publiclyapologized in a series of Twitter posts and fired two employees "involved in the mistreatment of Mr. Massey."

Industry pledges training, diversity

Like most other major hotel chains, Hilton hotels operateon a franchise basis. Hilton cansetbroad policies, but its franchisedhotels are individually owned and operated. They train their own employees and can decide the content of that training.

Glennie said the companyhas made training materials available to managers of the hotels, including those on "unconscious bias" and diversity issues. In January, it introduced a mandatory program called "Creating Intentionally Inclusive Guest Experiences" that included training on deescalating incidents in hotels.

Glenniesaid a staff member might rightfully ask a guest for a name and room number, but that's generally for the purpose of giving Wi-Fi codes or taking note of the guest'sstatus in Hilton'sloyalty program.

Other chains have similar training policies. Hyatt spokesman Stephen Snart said in a statement that thecompanystands with the Black community and "that Black lives matter – at Hyatt and in every community – and that at Hyatt, there is no room for racism or discrimination of any kind."Marriott spokesman John Wolfsaid that if a problem arises, the hotel chain is quick to apologize and provide additional training.

Anti-racist actions speak louder than anti-racistwords. "It's when you’re saying stuff that doesn’t align with your actual actions, that’s where the problem comes up," Roni Weiss, executive director of nonprofit Travel Unity, told USA TODAY. The organization released a list of diversity, equity and inclusion standardsthat it hopes will assist the travel industry.

Airbnb is working with Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, after a Harvard University study in 2015 discovered guests with African-American-sounding names had a more difficult time renting rooms.

Other hotel companies have faced lawsuits from Black customers who said they faced discrimination.

Felicia Gonzalessued late last year after she said she was requiredto sign a "no-party policy" after checking intotheResidence Inn by Marriott Portland Downtown/Convention Center in Oregon (which has since shuttered). Though a front desk clerk told her it applied to all guests, she told The Oregonian she didn't see any others asked tosign it.

Her suit alleges she was singled out because she isAfrican American.

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'Show your employees what these biases look like'

The hotel industry points out how far it has come from before the civil rights era when Black peoplewere barred from staying at many hotels. The discrimination gave rise to an annual guide called the Negro Motorist Green Book to tell travelers of color where they would be welcome, a painful chapter shown inthe film "The Green Book," which won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards (though the film received criticismof its own).Today, the industry says, all is different.

"Hotels welcome and serve everyone. We don't turn guests away," Chip Rogers, CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association,said in a statement.

Black peoplein the travel industry say there's still work to be done.

Aleah Coy, co-founder oftravel agency Black Travel Worldwide,said she has experienced racism from the hotel industry.Hotels shouldn't try to get off easy by offering an apology and a free stay to an offended guest, she said. "That appeases me, but it doesn't fix the situation," she said.

Rather, they should dig deep –not just offer to retrain an out-of-line employeebut change the system so employees are more likely to be held accountable if they make a mistake or misjudgment.

Other experts agree that training is key, but the industry'sfranchise business modelcan get in theway. David Sherwyn,aprofessor of the Hotel School at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University, said big hotel brands can recommend training for franchised propertiesbut often aren't in a position to require it unless mandated by law.

Hotels said they already train against discrimination. There aredebateson what training should look like. Sherwyn asked, "Should we focus on legal standards? Should we focus on perceptions? Should we focus on what's in the media?"

How can change occur across organizations with thousands of employees?“The bigger an organization is, I think the more unwieldy and difficult it is for them to have systemic change," Weiss said.

Coy suggested organizations "make the unconsciousbias conscious."

"Show your employees what these biases look like intentionally and unintentionally and ways to avoid projecting that onto peopleof color. And then penalize anyone who goes against this," she said.

'It's like gnawing in you'

Albert Law said his encounter in Richmond still troubles him.

Law said he understood the gravity of the situation –and the danger it could escalate –as soon as the guard asked whether he felt he "belonged" at the hotel. "Being from Alabama, I knew that was a submerged missile," he said. He suggested that if the guard checked for room keys and IDs among the white guests, he would show his.

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Law said he went to the front desk for help, then went outside to cool off because he was so disturbed by what had happened.

"There was all sort of fear, all sort of imagery," he said. He said he was left shaking. And the pain has not subsided.

"I am suffering with this. It's bothering me," Law said. "It's like gnawing in you."

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