Airbnb's anti-discrimination policy may not go far enough. We'll be watching

Rashad Robinson
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Rashad Robinson

For my father, who was stationed in North Carolina before being sent to Vietnam, preparing to fight a war oversees was not his only problem. He was about to risk his life for his country, but even while he walked around town in his crisp U.S. Marine uniform, he could not find a bathroom open to "colored folk." In that environment, neither American culture nor American law (regardless of what was on the books) had anything to say about business owners denying him the most basic public services.

It is an alienating, dehumanizing experience that so many Black people in my generation and all those before us share. And while the tools of discrimination have changed, the experience of exclusion—of not being able to count on equal access—continues. It's an experience that all people of color, women, immigrants, those of minority faiths and LGBT folks have faced.

In large part, the civil rights movement was started by everyday Black folks coming together to respond to widespread, racist business practices. That movement changed the rules of business: not just in the law itself, but also by building a culture of enforcement. Yet today, the threat of going backwards is painfully clear. And the role that organizing must play in setting and enforcing the rules—ensuring that all businesses institutionalize standards of equality at every level—is as critical as ever. That is why Airbnb's announcement today is so important.

Recent research revealed a consistent pattern of discrimination against Black people by many Airbnb hosts. It turns out that new tech platforms are not only disrupting industries, but also disrupting the hard-won gains of racial equality. In one well-publicized lawsuit, Gregory Seldan, who is Black, was told by an Airbnb host that the place he wanted to book was no longer available. But when Seldan posted a new photo and assumed a false online identity as a white man, the same host offered to book him.

Thursday, after months of work pushing for change, Airbnb released a new policy aimed at ending these persistent racist practices. Among other changes, Airbnb will implement mandatory anti-bias training for all staff, instruct employees in how to identify and handle racist host behavior, and hire a supplier diversity expert.

They will also set a new rule: if a host claims their home is unavailable, they cannot allow another guest to book it. It remains to be seen (and monitored closely) whether hosts will take this rule to heart and change the Airbnb culture, or if they will find a runaround, requiring Airbnb to do even more.

"The work of implementing Airbnb's new policy has just begun. Whether or not it is enough to end discrimination on the platform is a question we must all follow closely."

As in many cases, formal research simply confirmed what was long clear to Black people. Well before it came to light, we at Color Of Change had been asking our members about their experiences with Airbnb and hearing similar stories and outrage. When we first approached Airbnb with concerns about their platform enabling widespread discrimination, they had not yet accepted that there was a problem, let alone their role in enabling it.

Eventually, the social media hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack began to give voice to these stories of race-based exclusion; two Harvard University researchers published a paper showing Black Airbnb customers were turned down much more frequently than white customers; and Seldan filed his lawsuit.

We were then able to initiate a new dialogue with Airbnb. By then, the question was not whether there was a problem, but rather how to solve it. To their credit, Airbnb chose not to go down the PR path of simply trying to play down the issue and whitewash it out of the press. We told them this was a problem at the core of their business, and they accepted the responsibility to solve it. After a lot of conversation, asserting both our demands for real change and our willingness to partner in making that change, they decided to tackle the problem head on.

They launched an internal investigation of their own practices, and brought on former Attorney General Eric Holder and former head of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office Laura Murphy to help develop the anti-discrimination policy program they unveiled on Thursday. Airbnb should be commended for its efforts, which other corporations should view as a model for how to own up to their own practices of institutional racism and do something proactive to end them.

But trying to solve the problem is not the same as solving it. The work of implementing Airbnb's new policy has just begun. Whether or not it is enough to end discrimination on the platform is a question we must all follow closely. Success will be measured by whether Black customers and other people of color no longer experience the dehumanizing, racially motivated encounters that characterize the Airbnb experience today.

We should all be watching, and organizing, until that experience comes to an end. We must set the standard high: corporations should be allowed to say they value equality only if they work to make it real.

As platforms like Airbnb continue to grow market share and set new standards for so many services the public depends on, we must ensure that their technologies don't become a new refuge for discrimination. If we don't, the great digital future of business will look like its shameful past.

Commentary by Rashad Robinson, executive director, Color of Change. Follow him on Twitter @rashadrobinson.

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