Airbnb has suffered a lot of flack recently for how some of its hosts are using the home-sharing platform. In allowing hosts to decide who may or may not book their homes, it is now clear that racial bias has flourished on Airbnb.
While Airbnb can't eradicate racism from the world, the company told The Washington Post that it has hired Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington D.C. Legislative Office, as a consultant to study how hosts and guests interact to make sure users are in the future treated more fairly. Airbnb said it also planned to send out a memo to its millions of users about its plans to tackle this issue.
This announcement comes after Airbnb was forced to remove a North Carolina host from the platform earlier this week after he unleashed a barrage of racist remarks at a black business school student who had booked a stay in his home.
"We were horrified when we read these messages," Airbnb told Fusion afterward. "Racial discrimination is unacceptable and it flies in the face of our mission to bring people together."
The North Carolina incident was only the most recent in a slew of allegations of racism on Airbnb that has moved users to rally around the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.
A study out of Harvard last year offered more scientific proof of the trend, finding that users with black-sounding names were significantly less likely to be accepted when trying to book an Airbnb rental. While Airbnb isn't necessarily more racist than other corners of the internet, the study authors suggested that the user-to-user design of the site allows for bias in a way that a traditional hotel booking site does not.
Because trust is a large part of what makes sharing economy companies like Airbnb work, information like names and photographs are prominently displayed to help hosts and guests decide whether to book a listing. But that also creates opportunities for bias to influence the decision-making process.
In an earlier blog post, Airbnb has said that it hopes features like Instant Book can assuage the situation by allowing guests to book an Airbnb listing without prior host approval. It also said it planned to place more emphasis on reviews in the site design and less on profile data like names and photographs, which could perhaps influence how much users take information like race into account when deciding whether or not to accept a listing.
There is no surefire way to erase racism on Airbnb. But if Airbnb wants to make good on its mission of bringing people together, it has to try.