You can hardly have missed the news — read nearly any story about Airbnb today and it is likely to contain a statement about how Airbnb is dealing with allegations of racism and discrimination. There have indeed been a few notable cases of overt discrimination on the Airbnb platform — but, particularly given how very many guests are staying with hosts every day of the year, (hundreds of thousands) there have been phenomenally few publicized cases of overt discrimination. Of those we know of, not all of these have not had to do with race. A couple incidents had to do with sexual orientation — This story and this one .And one incident involved a transgender guest, here . There has also been one instance of overt racial discrimination on the Airbnb site in the US, and apparently another in Scotland (where a host stated he would not accept an Indian guest) which I heard about but couldnt’ find in the news. Then, in addition to these cases of overt discrimination, there are a handful of allegations guests have made, generally black guests, saying they felt discriminated against, because they were declined several times without explanation. In at least one case, a black guest asked to stay with a host using a picture of himself, and then when declined, reapplied using a “fake profile” with a photo of a white man, and was accepted. This black guest (Greg Selden) then filed a federal class action lawsuit against Airbnb alleging discrimination.
As well, there was a research study done by Harvard University researchers in January of 2016, which studied the relative success of those with “black sounding names” and “white sounding names” in obtaining Airbnb rentals. Please note that though this study did NOT actually study the effect of race on obtaining rentals, only the effect of user name, it is widely being quoted as a study about race and Airbnb rentals. It should be obvious that studying the effect of “black sounding names” is not the same as studying race — any more than we would consider a study using “white sounding names” like “Billy Bob” and “Peggy Sue” to be ipso facto a study about whites. (Read more about this study and some of my observations on it, at the end of this blog in the “Addendum”, below) And yet this significant difference is not being mentioned in the media quoting the study, and here we have one of the first pieces of evidence that, for many people in this nation so very obsessed with race and discrimination, it isn’t actually the facts that matter, it’s their sense of outrage which makes them right.
At this point there have doubtless been hundreds of articles pointing a finger at Airbnb, (see the list below at the end of this blog ) casting blame and allegations of racism. Even though it has never been Airbnb itself, the company, which has been doing the alleged discriminating (since it isn’t Airbnb which accepts or declines guests) , but rather the hosts, some have even gone so far as to suggest that “Airbnb is known to be unfriendly to black people”.
A couple individuals even seized the opportunity created by the many allegations of racism thrown at Airbnb, to start up their own alternative short term rental platforms, which ostensibly will be more “inclusive” (presumably more inclusive of guests…one anticipates they will be more exclusionary towards many hosts.…) One of these sports the correct name…Innclusive. The other is called Noirbnb . These sites seem to have great interest in pressuring hosts to accept all guests, while simultaneously treating hosts with distrust, by refusing to give the host the name or photo of the guest until after the guest books. (as stated in this article) Innclusive also stated in one interview that they would not allow a host to accept any guest for dates they declined another guest for. Hence the sites are highly punitive towards hosts for declining anyone, even when there are legitimate reasons for having to decline — eg the guest states that they intend not to follow your house rules. I imagine bad guests in particular — the rude, the disrespectful, those who have damaged others’ property — will love Innclusive since it will pressure hosts to accept them.
And hence we end up with the irony typical of the American game of race politics, that in straining to be more “inclusive” and fair towards some individuals, you end up being less “inclusive” of and less fair towards others.
Not wishing to miss out on the dogpile and yet another opportunity to scapegoat the archvillian Airbnb, legislators have also seized the opportunity to throw their punches at Airbnb. In this article , two black members of Congress are “pressuring” Airbnb over alleged racism. Civil Rights Attorney Kristen Clarke makes suggestions to Airbnb about how they can combat racism in this New York Times op-ed .
Airbnb has responded to this intense pressure by hiring Laura Murphy from the ACLU (see also this NYT article ) and by hiring Eric Holder to help them craft a “world-class anti-discrimination statement”. They had already hired David King, the “Director of Diversity”, to promote diversity in their company. Fired up with their new mission, Airbnb issued a a blog about the discrimination issue and their commitment to ” doing everything we can to fight bias and discrimination.”
So– many of you are asking….”Isn’t this all a good thing? Isn’t it good to be against racism and discrimination? I don’t discriminate in my hosting….at least not on the basis of race, or sexual orientation….I may discriminate against the liars, and the disrespectful…those with bad reviews or who indicate they wont’ be able to follow my house rules, or who are “waving red flags” when they inquire…but not on the basis of race or any category. So what’s all this got to do with me?”
It’s got a lot to do with you, because Airbnb doesn’t seem content, as it should be, to simply address instances of overt discrimination on its platform. When Airbnb states in its blog that “I sincerely believe that this is the greatest challenge we face as a company”, you would do well to ask why it is a challenge to take action on very easily reported instances of overtly discriminatory statements, and realize, that it’s not. Taking action on such cases is no challenge at all — guest reports the incident, Airbnb investigates, and if there are overtly discriminatory comments in the message thread (which Airbnb can easily review) then the company can easily act. So why is this “the greatest challenge”? That question gives me concern and it should also give you concern. The concern is, that Airbnb apparently intends to do more than simply address overtly discriminatory statements which, at least in the USA, are already illegal to make. Just what Airbnb may or may not intend to do, and how it may take action that encroaches upon or threatens the freedoms hosts have to decide for ourselves whom we wish to invite into our own homes, is where our concern should be.
One of the things that is most important to understand about the discrimination issues at hand, is that by making claims that they were “declined because of their race”, or declined based on their sexual orientation, or for any other such reason, guests are in essence implying that they are entitled to access to someone else’s private home. Indeed, in her New York Times op-ed on the issue, Civil Rights Attorney Kristen Clarke well illustrated the saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail — and made her access to other’s private homes into a Civil Rights issue, which it is not. The law clearly recognizes as much, and the nation’s Fair Housing Act, as well as Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, exempt owner-occupants of typical single family homes from discrimination laws. This means that US law states that it permits those who live in the same home where they rent out space, to discriminate on any basis. The exact exemptions vary from state to state, as indicated here , but in general the law is clear — and sensible — those seeking to rent to someone in the same home where they themselves live, are permitted to chose the kind of person they want to live with. And really, we should all be asking — as should Kristen and others who seem to be demanding access to other’s private homes — how else could it be? How well would it work to insist that a homeowner must take into their home, someone whom they dont’ want there? Would this work for either party, the host or guest? How will the guest feel, to be insisting on staying with someone who had indicated they would rather not have them there? Or with a host who, if silent on the matter, still radiates discomfort in the guests’ presence? I want to suggest that anyone who insists that they have a right to someone else’s home, is not a “victim” of discrimination, but rather is a bully, a bully who is seeking support from the legal system and/or our national public obsession with discrimination, to perpetrate their bullying.
Such awkward scenarios and such bullying is no idle fantasy, since among the suggestions this Civil Rights Attorney makes for how Airbnb can “eliminate racism from its platform”, are the suggestions that it can withhold the guest’s identifying information (name and photo) from the host, so that the host can’t see who they are communicating with , and has to decide whether or not to accept the individual without seeing them! Another of the Civil Rights activist’s suggestions, is to make instant book mandatory — in other words, to completely remove the hosts’ ability to screen prospective guests.
There are signs that Airbnb is actually moving to test out mandatory instant book, potentially to force upon all hosts — many new hosts have had their accounts set up with mandatory instant book and they are unable to remove this feature. See forum post about this issue.
Kristen also urges Airbnb to investigate hosts who are “suspected” of discrimination, and presents an idea for a “gotcha” trap that Airbnb could set up to try to catch hosts in: “Airbnb should actively audit hosts who are suspected of discrimination.By having users whose only perceived difference is their race attempt to make reservations with the same hosts (much like in the Harvard study), the company can identify those who discriminate. ”
I hope it is clear that each one of these suggestions for how to “fix” an alleged problem which is alleged to be widespread, but for which we have seen very little evidence — involves some measure of curtailment of host’s freedoms to engage in their business — and would impose Big Brotherish levels of inappropriate investigation, combined with (in the case of mandatory instant book) what amounts to a corporate expropriation of private property…and yet another means of bullying. Our homes belong to us — not to Airbnb. One thing that Kristen Clarke has very wrong in her op-ed, is the idea that Airbnb is one big hotel chain and we the hosts are simply subsidiary hotels. To view things this way is certainly convenient for those demanding access to our homes, but again, simply the fact that your only tool is a hammer doesn’t make me a nail, and the fact that you are a Civil Rights Attorney doesn’t make my private home a place where you can pry my door off its hinges with Federal Civil Rights laws and a liberal dose of bullying. Our homes are not hotels, we are not owned by Airbnb, and we are not subsidiaries thereof, or even independent contractors. Under the IRS tax law used by Airbnb , we are third party retailers, and our posting of our advertisements on Airbnb website is very similar, if not identical, to the way property owners post ads on Craigslist.
Quite apart from the legal issues involved in viewing host’s homes as part of a theoretical big Airbnb hotel chain, this perspective is nauseating to hosts who, quite naturally, find it appalling or chilling that anyone would insist on having access to their own home…where they live, where they have their possessions and valuables stored, their sentimental items, their personal and family history, their pets, their follies, their foibles and their whole personal life. If there is any place in the world where a human being feels that they have the right to be free, it is in their own home. This suggestion led one NYT commenter to make the following remark:
This article scares the bejesus out of me. To seriously suggest that the Federal government should be dictating to us whom we are required to have as guests in our own homes… Chilling…
Instant booking would make me leave Airbnb. This is my personal home where my husband and three children live. My paintings are on the wall. My grandmother’s china is in the cupboard. Our clothes are in the drawers. I need to know that I’m renting to a family that will be respectful of my home and my neighbors. This just isn’t the same as a hotel.
I am deeply sympathetic to the issue of racial profiling. But Airbnb is much more nuanced than renting an anonymous hotel room and, in the end, the hosts have to feel safe and comfortable with their guests.
So what should be done about the problem of discrimination in Airbnb?
To begin with, let’s return to the things I stated in the first paragraph of this article. We the general public have not seen many instances of outright discrimination on Airbnb. In fact, as mentioned, given the size of Airbnb and the number of bookings on a daily basis we have seen phenomenally, remarkably few instances of overt discrimination come to public attention. It’s reasonable to expect that there are more cases than we have heard about, but given the appetite of the media to seize on tales of discrimination, and the desire of those so “victimized” to be heard, one would think we would hear of more than half a dozen incidents, if there were really hundreds, or thousands.
We can probably expect that the amount of discrimination and racism/heterosexism etc in Airbnb renting, is the same as it is in the world at large — and the same amount as occurs on Craigslist, VRBO, or any other property rental website.
A number of “anecdotal” stories of alleged discrimination have arisen, where guests are saying things like, “I can never get an Airbnb rental for the life of me” or “I get rejected by hosts most of the time”. Well even if we consider that the Harvard Study did actually measure the degree of race discrimination on the site, (which it could not have, because, again, it was a study about the effect of user names, not about the effect of race ) the difference between those with black sounding names and those with white sounding names, was no more than 16%. It was not 50% or 100%. Which means, that for those who are claiming “I can’t get an Airbnb for the life of me”, there is very likely something other than race which is keeping them from getting accepted.
If one looks at the photos that these guests are choosing to use to present themselves, one may see, in some instances, that the photos could be better. Just as hosts have to learn to present themselves professionally, to make a good impression on guests, guests also need to learn how to present themselves….and they are at the disadvantage that unlike hosts who have a community to learn hosting skills, they have no community to learn these things.
What if guests have done all they can to improve their presentation, and are still getting declined without explanation?
Well another skill guests need to learn, is similar to what hosts have to learn when they learn to screen guests. Just like hosts are looking at guests with the goal of selecting those who would fit in their home and with what they offer, guests need to learn how to appropriately select hosts and listings whom they think would be a good match for them. If someone wanted to set out to “prove” that Airbnb was racist, or that there were “racist” hosts out there, or that as a black person one faced a horrible world of hateful home sharers, there would probably be no easier way to “prove” this than to intentionally select the hosts and listings one felt were the most inappropriate matches for oneself, and then ask (or better yet, demand!) to stay there.
I bring this up because, given the absolutely enormous investment that some individuals have in identifying as victims and in “proving” that there is “a lot of racism out there” , it stands to reason that at least some such individuals would seek to create or provoke situations, which they can then use to support their own agenda. In fact, there was something bearing some resemblance to this recently happening in Chicago, when a number of Airbnb hosts began to recieve “inquiries” from several black individuals, who presented in a truly unacceptable and threatening way, somewhat as if they were collectively playing a practical joke on hosts. The problem being, that when white or non-black people are being intentionally set up to look like racists, and particularly if they feel that their actions are being overseen by a corporation which condemns racism and perceives it as its “greatest challenge” to root this out…this joke isn’t funny.
Particularly given the heavy social opprobrium that is connected with the allegation “racist”, and the very serious consequences that individuals can face for racist/discriminatory behavior, such as loss of status, community respect, loss of job, even loss of career, I think it is very important not to make accusations about “racism” without solid evidence. Since we can never know why a particular host declined someone, unless they say so explicitly, no one should be accusing an Airbnb host of “racism” or any other type of discrimination, merely because they were declined — or even if they were declined with a black photo and accepted with a white one. ( for instance: the black photo may have presented an image of an unsmiling person, who looked angry, while the white profile may have shown a smiling person who looked happy. )
As well, it bears pointing out that we have two cultural trends in this nation which influence this issue: first, we have Identity Politics, which is heavily oriented towards valuing victimhood. Bruce Bawer explores this in his book The Victim’s Revolution. Second, we have in this nation, an absolute obsession with discrimination and racism in particular — it’s worth noting that although there were slightly more instances of overt discrimination in Airbnb against gays and transgender individuals than against black individuals, we are seeing an overwhelming amount of articles in the media about “racism on Airbnb” and very very little about homophobia or transphobia in Airbnb. Due to this fixation on race, we are overly prone to take every allegation of racism more seriously than perhaps it really merits, in individual cases.
There are also people very highly oriented to using the term “racist”, and dismissing people as “racist”, and in our culture, this dismissal tends to be rather effective. Once maligned as “racist”, (when immersed in a culture which in many cases has more empathy for robbers and murderers than racists), I challenge anyone to find a means to dig their way out from under this accusation. This is the “Cry Racism” phenomenon, which has many disturbing consequences….among which, is that old “Cry Wolf” phenomenon, which is that after a while people get so tired of all the cry wolf screams and shrieks, that they start to ignore the situations when the wolf really is there. Too much “crying” racism thus detracts from the truly concerning situations.
And so, what about those truly concerning situations? What of the situations, both real and potential, where an Airbnb guest is declined solely because of their race? In a situation of covert (as opposed to overt ) discrimination where the host simply declines the guest, but gives no reason for the decline.
I want to present an idea about this that will seem remarkable to many, because they have never heard this before. Particularly, as I say, in the context we have in this nation, where race and racism and discrimination are such very hot topics and we see articles about these topics in the media almost daily, and we see new efforts by corporations to do sensitivity training, we read about the value of diversity, we see cities and corporations encouraging diversity, and trying to uproot discrimination wherever it rears its ugly head.
So here is my revolutionary idea about what we can do about covert discrimination on Airbnb: absolutely nothing. We can, and in fact, we should, do absolutely nothing about covert discrimination on the Airbnb platform — meaning, situations where hosts are declining guests for discriminatory reasons, but not stating this overtly.
The overriding principle I am employing in this statement is that you, as a random person in this world, have no right to access my private home. You have no Civil Rights to access my home, and you have no Airbnb guest rights to access my home, and in fact, you have no rights at all in my home — except in the instance when I take the active step of actively welcoming you into my private home by accepting your request to stay here. Thus, you have only the rights which I, in my position as sole owner of my private home (which is not owed by Airbnb, contrary to the view of many) , my home which is in fact a home and not a hotel (simply using a home for short term rentals does not render it, ipso facto, into a hotel), choose to bestow you with. If I allow you to smoke in my home, you can smoke — if I dont’ allow this you may not. If I allow you to bring friends into my home, you may do so — if I say you may not bring others into my home, you may not. I would like to welcome many guests into my home — I enjoy being a host and having people stay here, but when they come, they notice, that my house doesn’t look like the Hilton down the street, or the Marriott downtown, or the Motel 6 off the freeway. My home is unlike a hotel, because it isn’t a hotel — I live in it and it has my things in it. My belongings are in my home — my elementary school finger paintings, my comic book collection, my antique furniture, and my pet bird. I dont’ want just anyone here — but I do invite most who ask to come.
But what if many hosts are discriminatory, and black guests or gay guests really do have a hard time finding a place to stay? Is it fair that they should be kept out of what is coming to be quite a large segment of public accomodations?
These questions lead to another question — “If someone is declined by a particular host, would it be right to force that host to accept that person?” because in essence this is what we are saying when we express concern about the “fairness” of someone experiencing numerous declines. We are saying that someone, or perhaps everyone, who didn’t want that guest in their home, should have to accept that person in their home. And what is this but a form of bullying?
As well, we should realize that when a person is declined a stay in someone’s home, in a situation where there is no chance of that person really being accepted, then we have to ask…what is the damage done? The damage is not that they didn’t get a place to stay — because it would not work out for them to stay in a home where they weren’t wanted. That is not an option. So the only “damage” if we can call it that, is that their feelings are hurt. And if we are so very concerned about people feeling hurt when they aren’t invited into a person’s private home, then God forbid that person actually has to face some serious challenges in their life…how will they cope? I am concerned that our laws and policies are making incredibly weak people who can’t cope with everyday experience. As one commenter put it on the “American Conservative” website:
If I can’t say “I don’t like the look of this person, I don’t want him in my house with me, my wife, and my kids” then I have basically no freedom of association. If I can’t say “I’m looking to rent out a room, if anyone’s interested” on the internet, then I have basically no freedom of speech. And if anti-discrimination laws are designed to prevent hurt feelings, then we live in an absurd, emotionally immature, and unsustainable society.
I want to volunteer myself as a person who is part of a minority group, who does not take offense at being “discriminated against” in private housing. I am a gay person, and I want to offer, as an example for other gay people, another way to respond when someone declines my request to stay in their private home. Instead of calling up the media and filing a complaint with Airbnb about being declined, instead of going on talk shows and radio programs to talk about how it felt to be declined, or starting a twitter post for #AirbnbWhileLesbian, here is what I would do if I were declined: I would look for another place to stay. Sound simple? I thought so too. As a gay person I completely support the right of any individual to refuse to accept me as an Airbnb guest on the basis that I am gay and they don’t want gay people in their home. I would find this disappointing, and consider them small minded and probably not very creative or whimsical, but I would realize two important things: their limitation was their problem, not mine. And their home is theirs, not mine.
Private homes are not public accomodations — see this forum post on this issue — this is something that seems to be misunderstood, sometimes intentionally so, by many of those who are demanding access to other’s houses. While a case can be made for ensuring that blacks and any other category of people are not discriminated against in seeking long term permanent housing for themselves, private stand-alone apartments, it’s my view that anti-discrimination laws are totally inappropriate for private homes, and should never be applied to private homes, since property owners must have the ability and the right to live comfortably in their own homes.
It would not only be extraordinarily disrespectful, but also ludicrous, to propose that people should be forced to live with someone they dont’ like, or are uncomfortable with, in their own homes. Rather, their own home is their last refuge of freedom, in a world where they may be uncomfortable most anywhere else. I know this as a woman, since women often dont’ feel quite so safe out there in the world at large. For women, I contend, it is particularly important that we feel safe in our own homes. And that we are free there. If we are not free in our own homes, where are we free?
Freedom is to a great extent correlated to a minimally intrusive government, which is why Libertarians like myself believe in small governments rather than large ones. It is also typical of Libertarians to oppose anti-discrimination laws of all kinds, as is discussed in this article by David Bernstein. One of the concerns that many Libertarians have about discrimination policies, is how they can proliferate, as he explained here:
The proliferation of antidiscrimination laws explains why libertarians are loath to concede the principle that the government may ban private sector discrimination. There is no natural limit to the scope of antidiscrimination laws, because the concept of antidiscrimination is almost infinitely malleable. Almost any economic behavior, and much other behavior, can be defined as discrimination. Is a school admitting students based on SAT scores? That is discrimination against individuals (or groups) who don’t do well on standardized tests! Is a store charging more for an item than some people can afford? That is discrimination against the poor! Is an employer hiring only the best qualified candidates? That is discrimination against everyone else!
This idea of the malleability and proliferation of anti-discrimination laws is exemplified by the new category that the government has decided we may not “discriminate” upon: transgender status. Some are even now arguing that to hold a philosophical viewpoint in which you dont’ accept that someone can literally “change gender”, is ipso facto discriminatory on its face — failing to use the right pronoun or gender term for a given person (and thus refusing to allow them to impose their own self-defintion and world views upon you) could in some instances cost you your job. I bring this up because like David Bernstein I see a slippery slope from anti-discrimination policies to a totalitarian forcing of philosophical and political views upon others.
Perhaps salivating when perceiving all the power and potential to bully others and preach to them from the Identity Politics Pulpit that several minority groups have obtained through anti-discrimination laws, other groups are lining up to get their share. There are now, for instance, people who generously tip the scales, who are pining for “fat discrimination” to be added to the long list of prohibited actions…as well as prohibited thoughts. See this recent article about such a fat activist. I think it suffices to say that many Airbnb hosts would have a care for their furniture if discovering that, through an Airbnb tech experiment or new policy to prohibit discrimination, they were not permitted to know until their guest rang their doorbell that she weighed 450 pounds.
The forcing of any kind of anti-discrimination policy upon a private home or a private homeowner, is in essence an expression of contempt for the freedom of that private property owner, and an expression of contempt for their need to be able to be comfortable in perhaps the only place that they have for this in the world, and it is a form of bullying.
But, you may argue — “even if I agree that people should be free, in their own homes, to make their own choices about whom to invite there, can’t something be done by Airbnb merely to convey its own values, values which it expects hosts to uphold, values of not discriminating…and, geez, do we really want racists on the Airbnb platform??? Are you saying that’s okay??!”
I would respond to that by saying that anyone who has missed noticing that the mainstream cultural values in the US are highly opposed to racism and discrimination against minority groups, must be living on an island somewhere, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean perhaps, or perhaps for the last 20 years they have never come out of their house and read a newspaper. Simply put I think that values of “anti-discrimination” have been quite thoroughly spread across our fair land, and beyond — these are important values in other First World nations too. For that reason, and because most every corporation has “anti-discrimination” policies that it applies to its own company and employees, I think most people have gotten the message that “discriminating” isn’t something that is socially acceptable. (By the way, hosts are not Airbnb employees, we are simply running a private business and posting ads on a particular website).
People have mostly decided how they are oriented to these mainstream values, “politically correct” values, and so my argument is that at this point, there is a point of diminishing returns in simply making more and more anti-discrimination statements. Moreover I think that at this point, a goodly number of people have “discrimination fatigue”, which is something like the “compassion fatigue” that sets in when the population of homeless tent cities or panhandlers in your area swells and their nuisance increases, and you find that you are no longer feeling quite as compassionate. Likewise, when people are too often lectured to about racism and discrimination, (or, in my area, “white privilege” and discrimination, or the “original sin” of white people) then they are going to start resenting being lectured to — particularly if they notice that “discrimination” has turned into a whole industry, and that many people are profiting by filing discrimination lawsuits. I contend that “anti-discrimination” laws may now be causing more problems than they solve, but that’s a subject for a whole other article.
As well, though one could try, with very intrusive and liberty-curtailing techniques to “root out discrimination” in a particular activity, it is not possible to keep “racists” off Airbnb, or off a plane, or out of your neighborhood or the local bar. Because, whatever being a racist is (I really dont’ know what it is…some say that being a white person is sufficient), it has to do with the contents of one’s mind and heart…and Airbnb with all its tech expertise, lacks a way to do thought screening to vet hosts. They haven’t yet figured out a tech geek way to peer into the most private thoughts one thinks when alone. Perhaps they could hire the NSA to do more spying on prospective hosts. Someone who is a “racist” could be completely non-discriminatory in action, and take all guests who request to stay…and yet, they might look down on certain of those guests..with condescension, a sense of superiority, dislike, unease…or whatever it is racists are supposed to feel that real human beings don’t. A guest might stay with a “racist” host without even knowing it…and someone might live next door to a little old lady for 30 years without knowing all the things she thought. It happens. People with “racist” thoughts dont’ have a neon sign on their face when they go out the house.
Then too, we should collectively stop pretending that we have a level of racism and discrimination in this nation which is the same or worse than we had 60 years ago in 1950. The fact is that most people find the idea of discrimination on the basis of race to be distasteful, and I contend that this is not a huge problem in this nation. By pretending this is an enormous problem, we simply fuel what in my view has become a race industry that is dependent upon manufacturing allegations of racism. What would all the Kristen Clarkes and Eric Holders, David Kings and Laura Murphys of the world do, (not to mention the Al Sharptons and Ellis Coses) if we citizens of the US were all mostly kind and generous to each other, open-minded and open-hearted? They’d have no job. Their continued employment is dependent upon finding ever more instances of racism and discrimination in the world — and perhaps helping create these if they don’t exist.
When it comes to changing people’s hearts and minds, and opening them up –if that is our goal (and I think always a worthy one) —
I don’t feel that more and more policies and rules are what is needed. More hammering of political correctness onto those who aren’t disposed to hear that, will have little use…except perhaps chase them into the waiting arms of a mouthy man with orange hair who is going to make America something again. So when I say Airbnb should do nothing about covert discrimination among hosts, I don’t mean to condone racism or racists, but to say…people gonna do what they gonna do in their private space (not to mention they will think and feel whatever they will privately think and feel) and there’s some value in just accepting that. It’s not quite as simple as putting everyone into two sorting bins, one labelled “non-racist” and the other “racist” and then forcing those in the racist bin to wear a scarlet “R” on their shirt collar and report daily to authorities about their whereabouts. I dont’ think we heal racism or any other social problem, through blame or vilification.
I think that a large part of why we collectively in this nation are so zealous about discrimination issues and anti-discrimination policies, and so poised to eliminate people’s freedoms in order to impose such policies upon others, is that we (and when I say “we” I don’t mean myself, but refer to the proponents of Identity Politics) have so effectively vilified the person who has any degree of either prejudice, or distrust or unease, with some “type” of person, be they black, gay, transgender, or other minority group. We (again, not me — but the Identity Politics culture) have in fact made the individual who is uncomfortable (perhaps for some of the time, even only one instance) with someone who happens to be a member of a minority group, into a sin, and particularly in the case of blacks and whites, we have cast blacks into the role of those innocents sinned against, and whites in the role of those guilty of an “original sin” .
In this opinion piece in my local newspaper, a white man expresses his lamentation over what he views as the “original sin” of all white people: slavery in the US. Thus I think that the relations between blacks and whites in the US tends to be overlaid with this mythology, of sinner and sinned against, perpetrator and victim, colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed. The need to blame someone for this “original sin” of American Slavery is so deep, that this author would blame all whites, even those who, like my parents, only arrived as European immigrants to this nation nearly a century after slavery ended, –and even though the very word “slavery” comes from the name of my own people, my ancestors, the Slavs, because of the huge number of them who were enslaved by “people of color” , the Arabs.
In any case, the result of the Identity Politics philosophies that are increasingly informing mainstream views, is that the person who would “discriminate” in any way against a minority individual, is greatly vilified. This person, particularly in their more unapologetic form, is in some sense our new “Satan”.
The fervor that we see in Airbnb to “root out” discrimination in private homes, is a result of this. If the “discriminatory” person is easily dismissed, it becomes easy to deprive them of rights and freedoms — the right to be comfortable in their own home, the right to have renters in their home, the right to obtain rental income, and at a more basic level, the right to do business and earn any income at all. It isn’t a far leap from denying people the right to earn an income with their property or assets, to passing laws that they can’t live in your neighborhood, or that they can’t ride the bus, or attend your place of worship. For the truly devout in the fight against racists, why not just throw them bodily in a lake and insist, as did the Witchhunters of old, that if they floated they were racists, and should be put to death, and if they sank, they were innocent, and God would have mercy upon their souls.
I dont’ mean to imply that I condone discrimination on the basis of race or any other category — I’m not arguing that people who would discriminate (crudely, as I would view it) on the basis of race, or sexual orientation, are fine upstanding people with great values whom we should be proud of. I dont’ have to agree with people’s values, to be able to support their freedom and their rights, and property rights. But it’s my view that we are collectively starting to lose the value of freedom upon which the US was founded — we are more concerned with being “politically correct” and avoiding any suggestion or hint of racism, than with preserving our freedoms. We are too willing to sacrifice our freedoms for the sake either of “correctness”, or perhaps for the cheap purchase of some degree of redemption from the burden of “white guilt”.
On that note…I think white people in particular would be able to see things a heck of a lot more clearly if they just threw off that heavy leaden mantle of white guilt that Identity Politics is continually trying to shove on white individuals…just dump it off and refuse to carry it…some things might become a lot clearer. Whites wouldn’t have to apologize in advance for expressing their views quite so often, among other things.
So again, I’m going to argue — that when faced with covert discrimination by Airbnb hosts, Airbnb’s course of action should be….to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’m not naive enough to believe that this is the course of action Airbnb will take …being a millennial-founded, no doubt white-guilt motivated group of individuals…and a corporation seeking to “grow”. No, they will no doubt succomb to mainstream political forces. But I would like to scold them for doing so and encourage other hosts to do likewise, and zealously protest any loss of hosts’ freedoms to do business or have our private decisions policed in any way.
Airbnb should act on instances of overt discrimination only. As for the rest — Airbnb and all of us should respect that a person’s home is their sanctuary, and that is perhaps the only place in the world where they are totally free to be themselves, and live with their values — which may not be values that we support or can condone. But that fact is pointless, because it is not our home, it is theirs, and we have no right to dictate to them who they shall invite into their own home. They should not be obligated to accept any particular guest or type of guest. Many women, for instance, feel safer in accepting only female guests, and that is their perogative. Some hosts are busy and accept most all comers, others do hosting quite part-time and are very selective in who they take in. Since people who sign up as hosts and take any guests at all can only be advantageous for Airbnb and for guests, and since the guests picky hosts take would only have fewer options if they didn’t offer theirs, I don’t see any practical need to push hosts to accept more people or different people than they want in their home.
Many have argued that yes, people have a right to freedom in their own home, but not when they open it to renters. This is not what the exemptions for owner occupants in the Fair Housing Act are saying. Such laws state that owner occupants have a right to discriminate when doing business — in essence they , lke the rest of us, have a right to make a living with their property. They are not denied this right to run a business and earn an income to support themselves because of their values, including any discriminatory values.
Some would point out that as a private corporation, Airbnb can if it wishes go beyond the law and require more of its hosts than the law itself would require. And that Airbnb wishes hosts to be welcoming — “belonging” is its trademark, its brand.
Even so, one doesn’t convey a welcome to guests by forcing hosts to accept guests they dont want in their homes, and one doesn’t convey “belonging” to hosts by investigating and spying on them to see if one can “root out” the hosts who dont have the right “values” or attitudes. A welcome doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t freely offered, if it isn’t genuine. Airbnb should seek to allow hosts to offer a genuine welcome to guests, rather than feel forced to welcome guests. Since the Airbnb discrimination/racism issues began to make the news, I have heard hosts express fear that they now will have to worry about declining a black or gay guest, out of fear that if they dont’ accept the person they might be perceived as discriminating. No one should have to have this fear hanging over their head — worried about being spied on by Big Brother as they run their private business.
First, it helps to understand the context in which these issues arise. They are mostly arising in the US, in Airbnb rentals in the US. Our nation is obsessed with racism and discrimination, and in particular, blacks and whites in our nation have a mythology of oppressed/oppressor and even “original sin” being overlaid upon our relationships in all areas. We also have a culture increasingly informed by Identity Politics, a worldview which is completely centered on experiences of victimization and oppression, (wherein those who claim some sort of victimization are accorded more power to preach to others) and on defining ourselves based on superficial characteristics like race, gender, or sexual orientation, as opposed to deeper characteristics such as our values, worldviews, chosen mythologies and soul qualities.
Without denying that there remain instances of racism, discrimination or inequality which still exist and do need addressing, I would like to categorically reject all claims of Identity Politics upon me, and reclaim my freedom and right to my own self-definition. I owe nothing to anyone because of their experience of racism or their people’s history of slavery or anything else (and by the way, I’m not still holding the Arabs responsible for enslaving my Slavic ancestors several hundred years ago) — and freed from the burden to owe something to someone, I find that I experience more of a genuine compassion for people.
As well, freed from the burden of having to view myself as racially responsible for someone else being declined as a potential Airbnb guest, and free from responsibility for all of their other claims as victims by dint of race, I simultaneously empower myself to be free in my own home, (and likewise insist on other’s freedom in their homes) and to claim rights to choose whom I want to have in my own home, and at the same time, in my freedom, find an increased level of genuine generosity and a spirit of welcoming extended to many different types of people.
Or, to put it in other words, if you dont’ seek to apply over-controlling laws, rules and policies to myself and my property, you’ll find that I’m a much happier and thus more generous and compassionate person. Freedom tends to do that.
Taking a look at some of the complaints that have arisen in the media lately, that there is racism on the Airbnb platform. Here are some of the articles that have been published on this issue — one need not read all of these (the first link is to the Harvard study that many other articles refer to) but I want to list them here to show how very much attention this issue has been getting in the media.
Comments on the Harvard Study:
The first link takes us to a Harvard University study that intended to research the effect of race on obtaining accomodations on Airbnb. I say “intended” because, quite surprisingly, the Harvard study did not actually study the results for black guests vs white guests in obtaining accomodations, but rather, they studied the difference in results for those with “black sounding names” versus those with “white sounding names.” (For the purposes of the study, no photos were used for these “fake” guests). I was shocked that a university as prestigious as Harvard, would produce such a flawed study. Because to study the results obtained for those with black sounding names, is not to find results for black individuals in general!! Individuals with “black sounding names” are a subset of black individuals, and “black sounding names” may produce connotations and reactions that are not identical to the reactions had towards black individuals in general.
There are two significant problems in equating “black sounding names” with black people as a whole. One is that stereotypical “black” names tend to be perceived as an indicator of someone from a lower socioeconomic class than those with “standard” names (I would not call them “white” names). Secondly, those with “black sounding names” may be perceived as being black individuals who are either more militant or more political about their black identity — so that in addition to being an indicator of race, their name is now potentially also an indicator of a political stance. Thus, the use of “black sounding names” introduces 3 variables, at least, into the study — not only race, but now also lower socioeconomic class, and perceived militancy/political stance on one’s racial identity. A very basic tenet of scientific studies is the need to reduce the number of variables in a study, in order for the outcome to be meaningful. WHen you are studying 3 different variables you cannot find a result which gives you results about only one of those variables. So the Harvard study in my opinion is seriously flawed.
Hence, the study that was purportedly about black individuals, may actually have produced results which provided more information about the effect of one’s perceived socioeconomic status on Airbnb renting. One could well ask, if the “fake” white renters had been given such “white sounding names” that also suggested a lower socioeconomic class, such as Bubba, Billy Bob, Betty JoLean, Peggy Sue or Mary Sue, would they have faced similar levels of discrimination?
Even with these 3 variables involved, the fake renters with “black sounding names” were accepted 42% of the time by hosts, compared to those with “white sounding names” being accepted 50% of the time. So the difference in acceptance, relative to the base acceptance rate, was 16% less acceptance for the “black sounding named” guests. When we consider that 3 variables were involved, and that hosts could have been reacting to any of these, it is reasonable to think that the percentage rate would have been lower if the study had in fact measured acceptance rate relative to black individuals only. It is not surprising to find somewhat of a lower acceptance rate for black individuals compared to white ones given that racism does exist in our society.
There were some interesting results in the study — surprisingly, both black and white hosts were found to “discriminate” against black guests. In fact the most “discriminatory” hosts were black males, and those they most discriminated against were other black males. These hosts accepted white males (fake renters with “White sounding names”) 24% more often (64% of the time) than they accepted black males (fake male renters with black sounding names )(40% of the time) . (See Table 4 on page 30 of the Harvard STudy ) By contrast, black females were the “least” discriminatory, and actually declined other perceived black females less often than any other type of guest. Males with black sounding names were more often declined than any other type of guest, and females with “white sounding names” were most often accepted. Intriguingly, the study showed that the type of host who was most discriminatory was also most discriminated against…and that black males having less trust of other black males was a highlight of the study.
In addition to the Harvard Study (which both created “fake” profiles and sent out “fake” inquiries — something which users are actually not permitted to do on the Airbnb system), other Airbnb users have given anecdotal reports of their experiences as black guests trying to get a reservation on Airbnb. Several black users report being declined many times. One woman named Quirtina Crittenden started a Twitter account called #AirbnbWhileBlack to write about this. One man named Greg Selden did his own “experiment” and sent out an inquiry to a white male host, was declined, and then created two other “fake” profiles using photos of white men, sent those, and was accepted for both of those cases. He concluded that the host was a cowardly bigot and that “racism happened.”
The problem with the individual anecdotal reports, is that one can never know exactly why one was declined by a host. When I looked at the photo of Quirtina Crittenden, I immediately saw a reason I would tend to decline her, and it was not her race. She looked like a “glamorous” type of individual, a fashion-conscious type of woman, and my experience as a host has been negative with such women, who I have realized do not fit well into what I offer. The most negative and even viscious reviews/ratings I have ever received, have been from such women. I have learned not to make that mistake again. I prefer dowdily dressed middle aged men and women, or serious and scholarly young people, or those more interested in what is inside a person than the clothes on the outside. I tend to be wary of fashion. I doubt this is something Quirtina would think about when she received a decline from me.
As well, It does not “prove” anything if Greg was declined with his own photo, and then found that the two white male profiles were accepted — there are potentially any number of reasons why this could have happened. Looking at the photos that Greg used on the 3 profiles, the one on his own profile is a photo taken from a closer distance than the other two. Hosts may respond viscerally to the perceived proximity of a guest in the photo — one that appears very close may appear more confident, more interested in engagement with the viewer/host, but also perhaps more threatening or more “in one’s space.” A guest who takes a position further away may appear less confident or less interested in engagement with the host, but also suggests someone who may be more interested in their own space and privacy and more of an introvert. Then too, in the photo of Greg, he is not smiling, and hosts tend to react more positively to a guest who is smiling, as this can help build trust.
There are any number of personal reasons why a host may react more negatively to one photo than another — perhaps one reminds him of a colleague that he was in conflict with recently, or a relative or neighbor who he doesn’t like, or someone who was rude to him at the grocery store or in the parking lot, or his “ex” who he is not fond to see again. PErhaps a host responds positively to another photo because the individual looks like his father, brother or son, or like a friend, or represents a favored self-image.
The least “scientific” and most inconclusive of reports, are those from black guests who state things such as , ” I get declined all the time” or “I can’t rent an Airbnb for the life of me….I gave up and got a hotel room.” As frustrating as this sounds, it’s really hard to tell what was going on there that caused these declines. What kind of listings were these guests inquiring at? Do the guests present themselves well? Do they use professional photos? Do they say enough about themselves when they inquire, or are they presenting so little information that the host doesn’t feel comfortable renting to them? Were they inquiring at listings with hosts with whom they shared any interests? WEre they inquiring at listings with hosts of a similar age or lifestyle? Were they inquiring with hosts who had full-time offerings, or who only rented part-time? I have heard of some hosts who are not interested in renting very often, maybe only two weekends a month, and they take very few comers. One host wrote that he declined 90% of those who inquired to stay with him. Some hosts are very picky about who they take, and may even cater to a relatively narrow group of guests, such as families with young children. (Some hosts worry about guests having parties, and reason that a family with young children is much less likely to have wild loud parties).
I think it’s important that people not accuse hosts of being racist for declining them, when they simply cannot know other’s motivations. It is irreponsible, and unethical, to hurl such accusations at people without any solid evidence. Even if it could be proved that a host declined a guest based solely on race in one instance,that does not mean that they will make a similar decision every time — because people are complex.
I think it’s also important that guests not view any potential race-based discrimination that occurs with Airbnb hosts, as a responsibility of Airbnb. Airbnb is simply the bulletin board where millions of entrepreneurs list their offerings. The rules about discrimination which apply to these advertisements, are the very same laws on discrimination which apply to all advertisements for housing, and are summarized here:
In essence, as on Craigslist and elsewhere, for the most part, those who are renting out space in the same home where they themselves live, can discriminate on ANY basis, including on the basis of protected categories such as race, religion, sexual orientation, etc — but cannot make discriminatory statements, in states which prohibit those. AIrbnb adds a policy to this and prohibits discriminatory statements in ads even in states and nations where laws may allow those.
Airbnb cannot be responsible for the choices that these individuals make, and for the existence of sociological circumstances — such as racism, sexism, heterosexism and other issues — -which have existed for many years before AIrbnb ever came to be.