Belong Anywhere?: Airbnb Addresses Racial Discrimination

September 13, 2016

Responding to years of reports of racial discrimination from users and a damning report out of Harvard Business School, Airbnb has released its plan for policy changes.
African Americans have shared their stories of racial discrimination with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack, created by Quirtina Crittenden. Crittenden discovered that she could book rooms that she was otherwise rejected from by shortening her name to Tina and changing her profile picture to a cityscape instead of her headshot. Stories like Crittenden’s abound.
The Harvard study, released in December 2015 and recently updated, corroborated this qualitative data and found that African-American guests were 16 percent less likely than white guests to secure a reservation from an Airbnb host. The experiment sent 6,400 messages to Airbnb hosts in July 2015 from 20 fake profiles. Similar to the now famous resume study, the profiles were identical except for the names—some were black-sounding and some were white-sounding. The researchers also divided names by gender, so ultimately there were five profiles each of ostensibly black females, white females, black males, and white males. None of the profiles included a photo of the user.
In the September 8th statement from Airbnb, CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky recognized that the company had been slow to take action on the issue of racial discrimination. He explained that Airbnb engaged Laura Murphy, former head of the American Civil Liberties Union Legislative Office, to audit the entire Airbnb platform and suggest ways to fight bias. He highlighted four of the eight recommendations that Airbnb will implement:

  • Airbnb Community Commitment: A stronger nondiscrimination policy that all users must agree to. Effective November 1st. It reads: We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias.”
  • Open Doors: A service to secure a new reservation on Airbnb or an alternative accommodation for any guest who feels they have been discriminated against. Effective October 1st.
  • Instant Book: Allows users to immediately book an accommodation without prior approval from the host. Similar to how other online booking websites, like Expedia, operate. The option was already available on Airbnb and will now be expanded. Airbnb’s goal is to have 1 million listings available through Instant Book by January 1, 2017.
  • Anti-bias training: Developed by Dr. Robert Livingston of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Dr. Peter Glick of Lawrence College, available to all hosts. Hosts who complete the training will be publicly acknowledged.

These are positive steps, but they are, of course, completely voluntary depending on what’s good for business. Airbnb’s arbitration clause and class action waiver in the terms of service make it nearly impossible for users to sue to address discrimination and seek remedies. Laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act were written before the advent of the sharing economy, and it remains unclear how to treat entities like Airbnb. According to Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, there are arguments to be made that Airbnb hosts are exempt as small owner-occupied rooming houses. On the other hand, Airbnb could be considered one giant hotel or a rental broker, and therefore all Airbnb-listed properties would be subject to the laws of public accommodations.
The stories of racial discrimination have created an opening in the market. Notable responses are the creation of alternative booking applications Noirbnb and Innclusive, which bills itself as “a platform where everyone is treated with dignity, love, and respect.” The creation of these new platforms as a safer and more welcoming place for black users recalls the once necessary Green Book, a guide created for black travelers during Jim Crow when they could legally be denied public accommodations like motels and restaurants.

Airbnb has its work cut out for it to combat racial discrimination.

In addition to the documented issues of hosts rejecting black guests, another study found that Asian-American hosts earned, on average, 20 percent less than white hosts, and yet another found that African-American hosts charged 12 percent less for equivalent properties than white hosts.