The consequences of using Airbnb while Black

BERTHA LEWIS, President and Founder of The Black Institute | 11/23/2016, 10:36 a.m.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has shown us that even 50 years after the fight for civil ...
Airbnb

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has shown us that even 50 years after the fight for civil rights, we must remain vigilant in the face of systemic racial discrimination from community-police relationships, to workplace equality, to fair housing practices.

While African-Americans have fought this battle in different forms for generations, the racial discrimination we have seen in recent months on the popular home-sharing app Airbnb presents a new and dangerous threat. Earlier this year, a study by the Harvard Business School found that guests of color are 16 percent less likely to get accepted as guests with white-sounding names. Following this report, stories began pouring in from across the nation on Twitter under the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack. When African-American guests attempted to book a rental on Airbnb, they were often rejected, with hosts using excuses such as, “Those dates are no longer available.”

Instead of addressing the problem of racial disparity head on, the action Airbnb has thus far taken has been nothing but cosmetic changes that deflect from the real problem at hand: African-Americans and other minorities are being rejected and excluded from their website at an alarming rate.

Airbnb neglected to recognize this growing scandal until nation media began to pick up on the stories of discrimination circulating on social media. They brought in big-name lawyers like former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and a group of former mayors to offer pricy advice on how to obfuscate the damage to their brand. In an attempt to hide behind the Black Lives Matter movement, Airbnb added an art installation to their home office, as if posing for a picture shows the world they understand the struggles of African-Americans. To be clear: it doesn’t and they don’t.

In announcing a voter registration drive before the elections, the company said, “At Airbnb we believe every voice has the right to be heard.” But with Airbnb recently going to court to defend their hidden policy that requires users to waive their right to sue or join a class-action lawsuit when they have been discriminated against, these words ring hollow if you’re a person of color. In 2016, no business should be able to shield themselves from the civil rights laws that protect against discrimination in public accommodations, but Airbnb has managed to do just that, and fought hard to keep this policy in place.

This fundamental roadblock to justice is a blatant act of racism in and of itself and a clear violation of Americans’ civil rights. It is clear that this action shifts any consequences of racial bias to the very people Airbnb claims to represent. The billion-dollar company has moved to take away a users’ civil right to a fair trial so they are forced to settle the claim outside of court. Unless Airbnb takes away their mandatory arbitration clause, any deal they try to make is a deal with the devil.

If Airbnb continues to deflect responsibility and refuse to drop this misguided policy, then it is time for the federal government to step in. Whether it is using Title II of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination by operators of public lodging or the Fair Housing Act that prohibits discrimination by housing brokers, the U.S. Department of Justice has tools at its disposal to investigate and take action against the ever-absent Airbnb.

From the days of the civil rights movement to today, we have seen the consequences when acts of discrimination are left uncontested and uncorrected. Talk is cheap—action needs to be taken now. We cannot let Airbnb create another barrier for people of color.