A travel advisory that the NAACP issued warning African Americans to take care when visiting Missouri now has the full support of the organization’s St. Louis County chapter, which initially opposed the action as potentially hurting black hospitality workers.
It was a confusing kickoff last week for the effort, which was a response to a recently passed bill that would make it more difficult for minorities and women to sue their employers for discrimination. The group also is concerned about the disproportionate rate at which police in the state stop African American motorists.
The civil rights organization announced the travel advisory last week, warning “African American travelers, visitors and Missourians to pay special attention and exercise extreme caution when traveling throughout the state given the series of questionable, race-based incidents occurring statewide recently.”
The president of the group’s St. Louis County chapter initially responded with a statement calling on national and state leaders to rescind the advisory. But days later, the chapter joined the protest.
Nimrod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri state conference of the NAACP, said he understands how some people might have mistaken the travel advisory as a suggestion to abandon travel to the state entirely, especially with Republican officials and the business community vigorously defending the new law that the protest targets.
But Chapel said the NAACP is not asking people to stay away from the Show Me State but, rather, calling attention to “Jim Crow-style legislation” and policing policies that threaten the rights of all people, not just African Americans.
“We as a society have got to look at what’s happening and say, ‘Are we going to depart from the road we’ve been on, protecting individuals’ civil rights, and turn around and go in the opposite direction?’ ” Chapel said.
Esther Haywood, president of the St. Louis County chapter, said there was “a whole lot of misunderstanding” about the intent of the travel advisory at first. She said she had been concerned about the effect of a potential travel ban because several meetings, including some that would attract large numbers of black attendees, are scheduled for the St. Louis area.
But she said that despite arguments by backers of the law that it brings Missouri in line with 38 other states, the measure goes too far. “It’s Jim Crow at its worst,” Haywood said, noting that a rally is planned for next week in St. Louis to call attention to the law, referred to as Senate Bill 43.
The bill, passed in the spring, requires that employees show that their race, gender or other protected status was “the motivating factor” in any discriminatory act against them. Previously a person had to show only that it was a contributing factor. Supporters, including Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, contend that this is the same standard the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission uses when considering discrimination claims.
A spokesman for Greitens declined to comment on the travel advisory. At the time the governor signed the bill, he said in a statement that he had met with passionate advocates on both sides and respected their views but believes that “we need to bring Missouri’s standards in line with 38 other states and the federal government.”
Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, also defended the bill.
“A piece of employment law legislation, which aligns Missouri law with federal standards, should not cause anyone to be concerned about traveling to Missouri,” he said in a statement.
Paul Bullman, a former president of the Kansas City, Mo., chapter of the National Employment Lawyers Association, said Republican officials are misrepresenting federal law, which does not say that an employee’s race or gender had to be “the” motivating factor but “a” motivating factor in a complaint. He also said the provision exempting individuals from lawsuits is chilling.
“If you’ve got a racist who comes to work with a noose, hurling racial slurs at minorities, yes, you can sue the employer, but the employee hurling racist remarks has no personal responsibility,” he said.
The bill was sponsored by Republican state Sen. Gary Romine, owner of a rent-to-own furniture and appliance business that was sued for racial discrimination.
Chapel said activists held rallies and meetings urging the GOP-controlled legislature not to approve the bill, which was touted as a way to reduce frivolous lawsuits. Debate got so intense that during one hearing on the measure, a Republican lawmaker shut off Chapel’s microphone while he was speaking against the bill.
In a statement announcing the travel advisory, the interim national president of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson, cited a 2016 report from the Missouri attorney general showing that African American motorists “were stopped at a rate 75 percent higher than whites.” The report also noted that African American and Hispanic drivers were more likely to endure searches of their bodies and cars than whites.
Johnson said the stop-and-search disparities are “unconscionable, and are simply unacceptable in a progressive society.”
Rosemary Johnson, a vice president of the NAACP state conference and a member of the executive committee for the county chapter, said that the advisory is not just a symbolic act but also practical.
“We want people to come here, but we also want you to recognize what to expect when you’re here: Make sure you’re driving the speed limit. Do what the officers ask you to do,” she said. “You are more likely to be given a ticket and pulled over. Make sure you have your bail money.”
She also said the new law is “a slap in the face to everybody, not just black people.”