Given the tech industry's absolutely dismal record on diversity, it's no surprise that business models based on the "sharing economy" come complete with all the internal biases of the people sharing them. AirBnb is a perfect example, where people looking to stay a night or two are matched up with people who can rent out their homes for short term stays and owners can accept or reject people wanting to stay there.
Guess who has a problem getting a place to stay?
Quirtina Crittenden was struggling to get a room on Airbnb. She would send a request to a host. Wait. And then get declined.
"The hosts would always come up with excuses like, 'oh, someone actually just booked it' or 'oh, some of my regulars are coming in town, and they're going to stay there,'" Crittenden said. "But I got suspicious when I would check back like days later and see that those dates were still available."
In many ways Crittenden, 23, is the target audience for AirBnb. She's young, likes to travel, and has a good paying job as a business consultant in Chicago. So she started to wonder if it had something to do with her race. Crittenden is African American, and on AirBnb, both hosts and guests are required to have their names and photos prominently displayed on their profiles.
Crittenden shared her frustrations on Twitter with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. She started hearing from lots of friends who had similar experiences.
"The most common response I got was, 'oh yeah, that's why I don't use my photo.' Like duh. Like I was the late one," Crittenden said.
And of course it's not just her, racism is baked into the system because America is a racist nation, period.
Crittenden's story fits within a larger finding that racial discrimination on AirBnb is widespread. Michael Luca and his colleagues Benjamin Edelman and Dan Svirsky at Harvard Business School recently ran an experiment on AirBnb. They sent out 6,400 requests to real AirBnb hosts in five major American cities—Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington.
All the requests were exactly the same except for the names they gave their make-believe travelers. Some had African American-sounding names like Jamal or Tanisha and others had stereotypically white-sounding names like Meredith or Todd.
Luca and his colleagues found requests with African American sounding names were roughly 16 percent less likely to be accepted than their white-sounding counterparts. They found discrimination across the board: among cheap listings and expensive listings, in diverse neighborhoods and homogenous neighborhoods, and with novice hosts as well as experienced hosts. They also found that black hosts were also less likely to accept requests from guests with African American-sounding names than with white-sounding ones.
Luca and his colleagues found hosts pay a price for their bias—when hosts rejected a black guest, they only found a replacement about a third of the time. In a separate study, Luca and his colleagues have found that guests discriminate, too, and black hosts earn less money on their properties on Airbnb.
So black hosts and black guests are discriminated against openly, and there's basically nothing that they can do. There's a reason I don't use "sharing economy" services like Uber or AirBnb, because there's no protections there. The fact that you can pick and choose who you let stay in your home is arguably the major selling point of being a host, as well as being able to pick a host as a guest.
People want to do that. "I'm not staying in her home, it's probably dirty" or "I don't feel comfortable letting them stay here" happens a lot more than people will ever admit.
The larger problem is the tech world's idiotic insistence that the internet makes race invisible or irrelevant, when clearly the opposite is true. And that's because the flawed business models are nearly all invented by white techbros who have never had to think a day in their lives about their privilege.
"I don't see color" doesn't work in reality, folks. At best, these guys are clueless to the point of being unaware of the damage they are causing, at worst, they know damn well their business model allows people to "curate" who interacts with them for money in ways that would be legally actionable in traditional business arrangements, and gosh, maybe that's the point.
This has been repeated in too many ways for it to be coincidence, guys.