When Ronnia Cherry, 30, and Stefan Grant, 27, rented a house in Atlanta through Airbnb last year, they were caught off guard by police officers at their door, with guns drawn, responding to a neighbor’s report that they were thieves.
“We had to explain the owner gave us the security codes,” said Cherry, who, like Grant, is among the rising tide of black travelers decrying racist experiences while using the home-sharing service, and giving birth to the social media campaign #AirbnbWhileBlack.
The long-simmering issue was inflamed last month when an Airbnb host in North Carolina made hateful, racist posts in canceling a booking by a black guest.
It is the latest in a series of stories, both anecdotal and academic, regarding bias in the home-sharing system. In May, Gregory Selden, a black Airbnb user, turned to Twitter to share his experience of being turned down by a Philadelphia host. He posted that he then “made a fake profile as a white guy and was accepted immediately.” He has since filed a lawsuit against Airbnb, saying that it violated his civil rights.
A January study from Harvard Business School found that Airbnb users with distinctly African-American names were roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted as guests than those with distinctly white names. The difference persisted, according to the report, whether the host was black, white, male or female, or whether the accommodations were shared or not.
When it comes to accepting guests, hosts may stipulate that they don’t want smokers or teenagers renting their property, but federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Airbnb addressed the North Carolina incident by banning the host from its service. On June 1, the company’s chief executive, Brian Chesky, posted on Twitter: “The incident in NC was disturbing and unacceptable. Racism and discrimination have no place on Airbnb. We have permanently banned this host.”
The next day, the company announced that it had hired Laura Murphy, the former head of the legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, to lead a review of Airbnb practices that it expects to conclude in September. (Airbnb has also said it will announce actions it will take in handling discrimination soon.)
The issue has inspired others to come forward with their experiences of alleged bias at Airbnb, including Shadi Petosky, who recently tweeted that a host had turned her down because she is transgender. Petosky wrote that she complained of the incident to Airbnb when it occurred in 2015, to no avail, and that she decided to post about it, given the North Carolina incident and the #AirbnbWhileBlack complaints.
Airbnb also removed that host, according to Nick Papas, a company spokesman. “We are conducting a comprehensive review and examining what can be done to ensure we resolve these kinds of issues quickly and help make sure everyone is treated fairly,” he said in a written statement.
Almost 1 in 5 American leisure travelers has used a home-sharing service in the past 12 months, according to the San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, which specializes in travel-industry analysis.
“Airbnb wasn’t the one who discriminated; it was the homeowner who exhibited ugly behavior,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, the founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “It does show Airbnb didn’t think to include a stated policy or training about nondiscrimination.”
Cherry and Grant, who rented the Atlanta house, said that they were not waiting for Airbnb to address bias and announced this month that they plan to start Noirbnb.
“It’s a black-owned company that’s serving a market we know very well,” Cherry said. She added that the service, still in the planning phases, will welcome all people of all races. “We want to educate and empower other travelers of color.”
Rafat Ali, the founder of the travel news site Skift, has experienced both sides of the argument, as a journalist who covers Airbnb extensively and as a traveler who sensed that he was turned down for a booking based on being, as he put it, “a brown Muslim guy.”
“I think this needed to happen to get them out of their tech mindset,” Ali said. “They have to see the human cost of this now, and I’m sure they’ll try to figure out some checks and balances.”
One of those already in place at Airbnb is Instant Booking, which acts like a hotel booking engine in the sense that it is fast and identity-free. “Now my preference is to Instant Book, rather than email the owner,” Ali said.
Just how existing anti-discrimination laws apply to home-sharing services is unclear and may be a matter for future litigation under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 or the Fair Housing Act, according to Deborah N. Archer, a law professor at New York Law School, the director of the school’s Racial Justice Project and a co-director of the Impact Center for Public Interest Law.
“People who experience racial discrimination while using Airbnb should continue to document their experiences and file complaints with Airbnb,” Archer wrote in an email. “The issue of racial discrimination in renting is something that Airbnb has to acknowledge and address systemically, not just on a case-by-case basis. People should also file complaints with federal, state, and local fair housing agencies.”
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