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.