Lawsuits allege Hilton, other hotels discriminated against Black guests

Several Black people have filed lawsuits alleging they were confronted about their presence at hotels where they were visitors or were registered guests. In some instances, hotel staff either called or threatened to call police.

Albert Law had checked into the Hilton Richmond Downtown in Virginia’s capital and was waiting in the lobby when a security guard approached him with 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 were being asked the same question – Law said in an interview he was deeply offended.

“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 for a law-enforcement administrators conference in March 2018.

Law is one of several Black people who have filed lawsuits alleging they were confronted about their presence at hotels where they were visitors or were registered guests. In some instances, hotel staff either called or threatened to call police.

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

While the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has led to collective soul searching about the issue of racial profiling by police, an attorney who is representing and investigating eight race discrimination cases involving Hilton-brand hotels questions whether Black people can receive fair and equal treatment while traveling.

“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 like it, all involving Black plaintiffs. “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,” Hilton 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 their power to deliver an optimal experience including looking after the safety and security 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 Network who has written about “traveling while Black.”

The issue of Black people being asked to prove their status as guests at a hotel received widespread attention last month when a Black woman posted a video 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,” said the woman on the video as she held up her room key.

Attorney Ben Crump, who is also lead counsel for George Floyd’s family, said in a statement on Twitter that he is representing the woman, and 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 wrote in a tweet. Calling the police, he added, is harassment.

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

‘An assumption that someone isn’t in the right space’
Discrimination in the hotel industry spans both before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate by race in public accommodations such as hotels. This was challenged after the civil rights act became law in a separate suit, Heart of Atlanta Motel vs. United States, though it failed.

Still, discrimination persists. But it may appear differently today as “an assumption that someone isn’t in the right space, or assumption that someone doesn’t belong and so something happens that shouldn’t happen as a result,” for example, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University School of Law, tells USA TODAY.

Racist experiences, too, can add up like “death by a thousand cuts.” “People don’t think about the cumulative impact of those kinds of indignities in someone’s life, Onwuachi-Willig said.”

‘Can happen to anyone like me’
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 himself, Willock was watching two games in progress 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 being 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 states.

“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 eventually 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, franchise owner of the Hampton Inn, said in a statementto USA TODAY that the company and 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.”

‘He looks like someone we don’t want here’
“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,” Arnold Kemp said in an interview.
Arnold Kemp had gone 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. Dressed in a jacket and a black baseball cap, he went to the bar, then the lobby, where he met his friend, according to a synopsis prepared by his attorney. But 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.

Kemp said he returned the next day to complain at the front desk and got the brushoff. Now his lawyers are preparing a discrimination complaint.

Meg Ryan, a Hilton spokesperson, said that 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
Delores Corbett, her husband and two kids checked into a Hampton Inn in Wilson, North Carolina, in November 2018.

The family members, who are Black, stayed overnight. The next morning, Corbett went to the front desk to resolve a billing issue. The hotel claimed she hadn’t paid for her room and that her credit card had been declined, her lawsuit states. Corbett tried to explain that she bought the room using points on her 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 later received an apology letter from a manager, which, among other things, said that the billing mistake was caused by the hotel, not the family.

Hilton spokesman Glennie 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 programming and 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 the DoubleTree by Hilton Portland in Oregon, said hotel officials summoned 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.”

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

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

The hotel publicly apologized 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 operate on a franchise basis. Hilton can set broad policies, but its franchised hotels are individually owned and operated. They train their own employees and can decide the content of that training.

Reached for comment about the lawsuits and allegations, Hilton’s Glennie said the company has 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 de-escalating incidents in hotels.

Glennie said there are times when a staff member might rightfully ask a guest their name and room number, but they are generally for the purpose of giving them Wi-Fi codes or taking note of their status in Hilton’s loyalty program.

Other chains have similar training policies. Hyatt spokesman Stephen Snart said in a statement that the company stands 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 Wolf said that if a problem arises, the hotel chain is quick to apologize and provide additional training.

But anti-racist actions speak louder than anti-racist words. “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, tells USA TODAY. The organization recently released a list of diversity, equity and inclusion standards with which it hopes to assist the travel industry.

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

And other hotel companies have also faced lawsuits from Black customers who felt discriminated against.

Felicia Gonzales sued late last year after she said she was required to sign a “no-party policy” after checking into the Residence 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 being asked to sign it.

Her suit alleges she was singled out because she is African American.

‘Show your employees what these biases look like’
The hotel industry likes to point out how far it has come from days before the civil rights era when Black people were 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 in the film “The Green Book,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards (though the film received criticism of its own). Today, the industry says, all is different.

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

But Black people in the travel industry say there’s still work to be done.

Aleah Coy, co-founder of travel agency Black Travel Worldwide, said she has experienced racism from the hotel industry. She doesn’t think hotels should just try to get off easy by offering an apology and a free stay to an offended guest. “That appeases me, but it doesn’t fix the situation,” she said.

Rather, they should dig deep – not just offer to retrain anout-of-line employee, but 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’s franchise business model can get in the way. David Sherwyn, a professor of the Hotel School at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University, said big hotel brands can recommend training for franchised properties but often aren’t in a position to be able to require it unless mandated by law.

Hotels say they already are training against discrimination. There are debates, however, on what training should look like. Sherwyn asks: “Should we focus on legal standards? Should we focus on perceptions? Should we focus on what’s in the media?”

Also, 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 suggests organizations “make the unconscious bias conscious” – as in: “Show your employees what these biases look like intentionally and unintentionally and ways to avoid projecting that onto to people of 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 in the interview. He suggested that if the guard checked for room keys and IDs among the white guests, he would show his.

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.”