"We Can't Breathe"

HBCU Think Tank Outlines First Steps To Remove Race Barriers In The Hospitality Industry

By Sara Withrow

The pandemic spotlighted racial inequity in the U.S., as Blacks and Hispanics died from COVID-19 at greater rates than whites, and experienced higher rates of unemployment. People of color working in the hospitality industry took a direct hit. When COVID-19 safety restrictions forced restaurants and hotels to close their doors, they laid off employees, indefinitely. Approximately 20% of these workers were Black Americans.

Aggravating the situation, the police killing of George Floyd, a Black resident of Minneapolis, sparked a national outcry against racial injustice. Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement in America.

Inspired by the challenges faced by Black Americans, and particularly those working in the hospitality industry, Cihan Cobanoglu, a professor and director of the M3 Center for Hospitality Technology and Innovation at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, and Deanne Williams-Bryant, director of the School of Hospitality Management at Bethune-Cookman University, organized and led the HBCU’s “We Can’t Breathe” Think Tank.

“We wanted to see if there were some concrete things that we could do,” Cobanoglu said. The event invited university leaders from around the world to discuss industry challenges and hospitality education at HBCUs (Historically Predominant Black Colleges and Universities).

The attendees discussed the lack of career advancement opportunities for Black Americans, among other topics. At the event, Ivan Turnipseed, a professor and coordinator of hotel, restaurant and tourism management at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, said statistics clearly point to racial disparity. According to the Castell Project (2020), roughly 20% of hospitality employees are Black Americans, but only one in 65 hold leadership positions at the director level and above.


Research: USF Sarasota-Manatee Campus

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“This statistic stunned me,” Cobanoglu said.

He and Williams-Bryant published the think tank’s findings in December 2020. The report includes 10 action items for the HBCU Hospitality Management Consortium (HMC), a special interest group of the International Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education. The action items focus on increasing corporate membership in the HBCU HMC, developing strategies for HBCU hospitality management programs to request corporate support, establishing industry advisory boards and ongoing curriculum review, and more.

Cobanoglu said he wants to continue the conversation with future think tank events. He also plans to develop an online hospitality certificate program and an HBCU Hospitality Leadership Academy – designed specifically for people of color.
“It could be internal issues; for example, lack of confidence or lack of interest that are contributing to the disparity in Black hospitality managers. We are preparing another certificate program that will address these potential issues,” he said.

Williams-Bryant agrees that education is critically important; but corporate engagement, advocacy and support are vital to engender success and provide equal opportunities to turn the tides, she said.

“In order to bridge the gap between the C-suite and the frontline positions where minorities prevail in great numbers, there has to be intentional commitment from the upper echelons of the organizations,” she added. “Developmental initiatives, training and coaching are just some ways in which the decision makers in these organizations can create pathways for success. At the end of the day, productivity outweighs tokenism and equity downplays discrimination.”

Download the HBCUs “We Can’t Breathe” Think Tank report at: sarasotamanatee.usf.edu/hbcureport.