Airbnb Debuts Robust Anti-Discrimination Policy But Sidesteps Pervasive Stereotypes

The latest changes are a huge step and hit all the right notes. But it misses one major chord: race and trust.

Ashley Warmington, CEO of Cozy Oasis, a short-term rental concierge company that partnered with the anti-racial discrimination home-sharing website Noirbnb. Noirbnb aims to be sensitive to the needs of multicultural travelers who have complained about being rejected for bookings on Airbnb.com because of their race. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BEBETO MATTHEWS
Ashley Warmington, CEO of Cozy Oasis, a short-term rental concierge company that partnered with the anti-racial discrimination home-sharing website Noirbnb. Noirbnb aims to be sensitive to the needs of multicultural travelers who have complained about being rejected for bookings on Airbnb.com because of their race. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BEBETO MATTHEWS

Airbnb released 32 pages of new policy Thursday aimed at reducing or eliminating discriminatory behavior by its network of hosts. The update follows numerous complaints and media coverage of renters—many of them identifiable as black in their avatars—being turned away. But while the company’s new policy is a major improvement to prevent discrimination, it seemingly glosses over the stereotype that black people can’t be trusted.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote in the company’s report that despite its previous anti-discrimination policies, the company’s three-month investigation turned up several “deficiencies.”

This outcry from the community led Airbnb to closely examine their nondiscrimination policies and procedures. Airbnb has had nondiscrimination rules in place since the early days of the company and has removed hosts and guests from the platform who violate these rules. However, the examination quickly uncovered that this issue is complicated, and highlighted a range of deficiencies and areas ripe for improvement.

With the help of former ACLU director turned private practice civil rights attorney Laura Murphy, Airbnb’s new policy report outlines several changes that give renters more power. The highlighted changes: instant booking, a broad and mandatory anti-discrimination commitment for renters and hosts, a dedicated, full-time staff charged with making the platform more inclusive and bias free, and an “open door” service that ensures renters who experience discrimination find a place to stay even if it’s not through Airbnb.

But the chief complaint of black Airbnbers — the site’s required use of profile photos of a user’s face that, in turn, fuel discrimination — remains intact. The company also has an optional verified ID process that links users’ government identification and social media profiles to their Airbnb accounts. Similar to Facebook’s controversial real-name policy, Airbnb says photos are a security feature so hosts and guests know who they’re dealing with and add to the platform’s sense of community.

“Airbnb believes profile photos are an important feature that help build relationships and allow host and guests to get to know one another before a booking begins…”

Instead of obliging requests to do away with mandatory profile photos that led to guests being instantly refused service because of their skin color, Airbnb pledged in its report to downplay photos by making guests’ reviews, reservation activity, and social media profiles more prominent.

“Airbnb believes profile photos are an important feature that help build relationships and allow host and guests to get to know one another before a booking begins,” the company wrote in its report. “While important, photos capture only one dimension of a person’s identity.”

Airbnb eschews pseudonymity, which advocates say could help prevent discrimination based on certain characteristics such as name and perceived race and ethnicity. Similar practices, Airbnb notes, has “helped people successfully apply for mortgages and employment opportunities.”

But the company maintains that the more information hosts and guests have available, the easier it will be to establish trusting business relationships. In its report, Airbnb cited a recent collaborative study with Stanford University that found “trust between dissimilar users” increased when systems such as review scores were available. That study, however, didn’t factor in race — the main problem Airbnb sought to address. Airbnb said a similar study is underway and will take race into account.

Airbnb’s new policy changes are a huge improvement and attempt to hold the company accountable to federal anti-housing discrimination standards laid out in the Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act, the latter of which has an exemption for bed and breakfasts. (Whether Airbnb is exempt is up for debate, and is the central issue in a pending class-action lawsuit against the company.) But the company’s decision to keep mandatory profile pictures and support that decision by a study that didn’t factor in race overlooks the damaging stereotypes attributed to people of color — that they aren’t trustworthy.

Yes, Airbnb’s changes should be applauded for taking a comprehensive, data-centric approach to addressing discrimination, an issue that ultimately cost the company business and spurred guests to create minority-friendly alternatives such as Noirbnb. But the policy changes seem to overlook the reality that a person’s real or perceived identity attracts harassment, abuse and discrimination — all experiences that people of color and women are more likely to have.

Airbnb’s position instead focuses on the fact that people are naturally suspicious of strangers and make decisions on whether someone can be trusted on how similar or relatable a person is and that seeing someone’s face will ease any fears. But that knee-jerk tendency to distrust those who are different is at the center of personal biases, and left unchecked, can lead to outright discrimination.

The Stanford University researchers found that platforms that focus more on transactions — eBay, Amazon, and Expedia — tend to have fewer discrimination complaints because “sellers effectively pre-commit to accept all buyers regardless of race or ethnicity,” researchers wrote.

But housing is a little different. It’s more personal and requires some face-to-face interaction and the industry is still rife with decades-long practices of racial discrimination. It’s a pervasive problem in housing that’s been baked into public consciousness. African Americans and Latinos still face discrimination in renting, buying, and selling. Both groups frequently have trouble securing mortgage loans, and if they do, end up paying higher rates. Additionally, banks take evasive measures to avoid serving minority populations.

After an investigation, a fair housing group found that Bank of America failed to maintain homes for sale in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. Foreclosed homes in white neighborhoods were tended to with routine grass cutting, trash pickups, and repairs to doors and windows to prevent theft and vandalism.

For Airbnb, the problem with discrimination extends to a lack of diversity among hosts, which is likely due to the fact that blacks and Latinos are significantly less likely to own their homes. Moreover, African Americans are less likely to be in a position to vacate an entire home for short-term stays — Airbnb’s most successful type of rental.

So while Airbnb should certainly be praised for taking bold steps toward rooting out racism on its platform, much of the policies presented won’t prevent people from judging a person’s character by their complexion — an issue that plagues an entire industry and society at large. Hopefully, the policy changes will make sure incidents of discrimination against anyone for any reason are addressed quickly and openly.