May 9, 2016
The online lodging service Airbnb has a race problem that the tech giant has a moral, if not legal, duty to expunge from its self-described “trusted community marketplace.” Airbnb connects house and apartment dwellers seeking to rent out their premises with lodgers looking for places to stay short term. A would-be host posts a place and available dates, along with photos of the accommodation and of the host. A would-be renter, who also has a photo and profile, gets in touch. If they are comfortable with one another, there’s a deal. But, in a striking commentary on the true level of hidden racism in America, there is substantial evidence that the Airbnb “community” is less inclusive to African-Americans than to others. The Twitter hashtag #airbnbwhileblack, posted alongside screenshots of curt rejections by prospective hosts, sums up the experiences of users who suspect that their race played a role in denying them accommodations. They’re not paranoid. Harvard Business School researchers ran tests in Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. They found that potential renters with black-sounding first names were 16% more likely to be rejected than those with white-sounding names, for that reason alone. An earlier Harvard study concluded that black hosts in New York City got paid 12% less per night, all else being equal. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James last week urged Airbnb to eliminate user profile photos and names from the site as a way to prevent prejudice from creeping into decisions. At first glance attractive, the remedy would ultimately prove unworkable because sharing living space isn’t an eBay sale; for reasons of trust and security, transactions can’t be anonymous. Many if not most Airbnb rentals also fall outside civil rights laws barring discrimination; courts have long ruled that individual choices of roommates and the like are personal matters. The onus falls squarely, then, on Airbnb to root out not only explicit racism from listings and interactions but also bias, conscious and not, that can disadvantage black lodgers and hosts. Although Airbnb says that it already ejects overt offenders, the company needs to go further. It must do a far better job requiring hosts to acknowledge that they understand discrimination on the basis of race will not be tolerated — and that offenders will be barred from the service. Airbnb should post the anti-bias policy prominently on all listings, and provide guests a complaint link to report suspected racially motivated rejections. Society’s racial divides are not Airbnb’s alone to bridge — but an opportunity now knocks on its doors to advance still painfully needed progress.
May 9, 2016