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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Airbnb Hit With Racial Discrimination Suit


Is Airbnb allowing hosts to discriminate against potential guests based on their race? A recently filed lawsuit alleges that it does.

Filed by 25-year-old Virginia resident Gregory Selden, the suit claims Airbnb violated his civil rights. Selden planned a trip to Philadelphia in March 2015 and tried to book accommodation through Airbnb, a sharing economy platform that allows hosts to list everything from guest rooms to second homes and investment properties.

Selden signed up for Airbnb on his smartphone through Facebook and used the app to book accommodation. His Facebook profile included his profile picture and other personal details such as his name, sex and age. He inquired about the availability of a Philadelphia accommodation from an Airbnb host agent, but his request was rejected.

Soon after being rejected, Selden noticed the same listing was available. He then created two fake profiles: one for a young white man and another for an older white man. He used the profiles to request accommodations for the same dates and from the same Airbnb host agent that rejected his request. Both of the imitation accounts were accepted.

Selden then contacted Airbnb, but the company did not respond, so he confronted the Airbnb host agent that rejected him. The host agent stated that Selden or “people like [him] were simply victimizing [himself],” according to the lawsuit. Since Airbnb didn’t respond to Selden, he went on Twitter and “spawned the viral hashtag" #AirbnbWhileBlack, which had “thousands of retweets from individuals who experienced the exact same disparate treatment from Airbnb,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit was filed last week, which just so happens to coincide with the anniversary of two landmark Supreme Court decisions related to civil rights: Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled under Plessy v. Ferguson that the “separate but equal” policy was legal in public facilities, including schools, essentially upholding state segregation laws. In 1954, the Court reversed the Plessy ruling under the Brown ruling, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. We have come a long way since 1954, but clearly we haven't come far enough.

A study published in January found that requests for Airbnb accommodations from people with “distinctively African-American” names were about 16 percent less likely to be accepted than “identical guests with distinctively white names.” And that costs the hosts, the study found, because those who reject African-American guests can only find a replacement guest 35 percent of the time.

Airbnb claimed in a blog post that it is dealing with discrimination. Titled, “A Fair Community for Everyone,” the post mentions recent “reports about people who were discriminated against because of their race when they tried to book an Airbnb listing.”

Claiming that racial discrimination is unacceptable at Airbnb, David King, the company's director of diversity, went on to list the ways it is addressing the issue. These include:

  • Unconscious bias training: Airbnb made unconscious bias training available to over the 5,000 hosts who attended the Airbnb Open, an annual host convention. Airbnb will conduct training for hosts in “key markets and through webinars before the end of the year,” King wrote.

  • Increased focus on reviews: The company plans to put a bigger spotlight on reviews, King wrote, citing research Airbnb conducted with “experts at Stanford University” which found people are more likely to trust people that have similar characteristics.

  • Enhanced training: The company plans to strengthen customer service by taking steps to enhance the training the teams receive “to include specific instruction on how to identify and combat hosts who may be inappropriately refusing to share their space with certain guests,” King wrote.

  • Fight bias with technology: Airbnb’s data-science teams are looking at “machine learning models and other tech tools” that can be used to help enforce its anti-discrimination policy.

While all that Airbnb mentioned in the blog post is good, the company clearly needs to do all it can to ensure that racial discrimination is stamped out. No one who tries to book accommodations through the platform should be rejected because of their race.

Photo: Flickr/tommypjr

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman