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Airbnb and the “sharing economy” still suffer from old-fashioned racism

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"Sharing economy" services like Airbnb are thought of as revolutionary and democratizing. They let ordinary people make extra money using something they already have, like an apartment, and they offer consumers a wider variety of affordable choices than more traditional institutions, like hotels.

But despite its upstart nature, Airbnb still suffers from an old, institutional problem: racism.

The hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack recently went viral, as black Airbnb users discussed their experiences with discrimination while using the service.

Research backs up their experiences. A working paper by three Harvard researchers found that Airbnb hosts were 16 percent more likely to reject black guests than white guests.

That's not nearly as frequent as, say, the rate at which people of color are denied home loans, a subject fraught with deeply embedded institutional discrimination that has denied equal housing access to people of color for generations. But it shows that even when you try to democratize things and subvert the old institutions like Airbnb does, there's still a core of implicit racial bias that just won't go away.

In a field experiment, the Harvard researchers created Airbnb user profiles that were the same except for the names — some sounded distinctly African American, and some sounded white. The researchers then used these profiles to ask about the availability of 6,400 Airbnb listings in five different cities. Profiles with white-sounding names got a positive response 50 percent of the time, but African-American names only got a 42 percent positive response rate.

The results were incredibly consistent. The host's race, gender, and age didn't matter. The type and size of the property, or the type of neighborhood it was in, didn't matter. It didn't matter whether the host was a casual Airbnb user or a seasoned professional: All hosts largely discriminated against black guests at about the same rate. The only mitigating factor was whether a host had already had at least one black guest in the past.

People discriminated in this way even though it ended up costing them: Hosts only found a replacement guest 35 percent of the time, and they passed up an estimated $65 to $100 in revenue by rejecting a black guest.

It's unlikely that hosts did this consciously. Implicit bias is a powerful phenomenon that constantly informs our daily decisions and reinforces discrimination against marginalized groups — yet most people don't realize they have these biases. And an institution can never be truly egalitarian unless it finds ways to work against implicit bias.

Airbnb could work against racial discrimination in several ways, the paper's authors say. It could conceal guest names, or have people use pseudonyms like eBay does. It could also expand its "Instant Book" option, which works more like booking for traditional hotels or bed and breakfasts, where guests aren't screened before they're accepted.

In a statement following the release of the Harvard working paper, Airbnb seemed open to considering options to fix this problem. "We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community," the company said.

The internet has the potential to increase equality. After all, the paper's authors argue, there's almost no way for platforms like Amazon or Expedia to discriminate based on race or any other personal category. And they point out that some inequities, like black people being charged more than white people when they buy cars, go away when the transaction happens online.

But as our online lives start to look more like our offline ones, baggage like racial bias comes with it. And as it turns out, even Amazon can still find ways to discriminate.