Airbnb May Be Prime Real Estate For Racial Bias

Photo courtesy of Airbnb.
A new working paper from Harvard University reveals how our so-called "sharing economy" doesn't exactly share and share alike.

Specifically, the study's trio of researchers found that Airbnb hosts are 16% less likely to roll out the welcome mat to users with "distinctively African-American names." While Annes and Brents receive positive responses nearly half the time, for instance, Latonyas and Jamals were approved just over a third of the time.

The researchers attempted to rent 6,400 Airbnb listings in Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. using 20 guest accounts. Each account contained identical information, except for the addition of a typically white- or Black-sounding name. Regardless of the rental cost or location — or whether the host was male, female, white, or African-American — the racial penalty was "remarkably persistent," the study authors wrote.

While Airbnb touts itself as a community based on trust, these Harvard results suggest both conscious and unconscious bias that muddies the waters of its optimistic business proposition — particularly when compared with anonymous hotel rental sites, such as Expedia.

"If a hotel lists a room on Expedia, platform rules effectively prevent the hotel from rejecting a guest based on perceived race, ethnicity, or almost any other factor," the study authors write. "But if the same hotel lists a room on Airbnb [which some hotels have begun to do], it could reject a guest based on these factors or others."

But this isn't an Airbnb-exclusive issue. A 2003 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that résumés with Black-sounding names received 30% fewer callbacks, compared to identical résumés with white-sounding names. On the flipside of the shared-services world, "Ubering While Black" has offered welcome relief to customers of color, many of whom report rejection by cab drivers based on race.

As for Airbnb, the Harvard researchers offered two potential solutions that would might shake up its neighborly vibe — conceal guest names or expand its Instant Book option, which allows guests to book without pre-screening by the host. Meanwhile, they note that "online marketplaces increasingly choose to reduce the anonymity of buyers and sellers in order to facilitate trust..." and racial discrimination is a significant, unintended consequence of that choice.

In a press statement to The New York Times responding to the Harvard findings, Airbnb maintained its commitment to maintaining its hallmark transparency — and the extra baggage that can come with that.

"We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community," the statement read.

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