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 — yet, particularly given how very many guests are staying with hosts every day of the year, (hundreds of thousands) there have been few publicized cases of overt discrimination. There may of course be many cases which have not been publicized. Of those we have heard 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. Then, in addition to these cases of overt discrimination, there are a number of publicized allegations guests have made (there may be many more which have not been publicized), 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 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)
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…not clear if they will be more inclusive of hosts…..) One of these sports the correct name…Innclusive. The other is called Noirbnb . At least one of these sites seems to have 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 they are 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 be happy with Innclusive since it will pressure hosts to accept them. I suspect that such policies also will cause many hosts to feel excluded from participating in Innclusive.
Not wishing to miss out on the dogpile and yet another opportunity to scapegoat 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 I’d think 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 — 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 in advertisements for housing or in communications with a prospective renter. [NOTE: See this explanation of how it is illegal to make a discriminatory statement in a housing ad. Nationally, it is illegal to make such statements on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, disability. Some states such as California also prohibit discriminatory statements on the basis of sexual orientation, or other categories. ] 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, from my view, is important to understand about the discrimination issues , 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 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, may radiate a 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 could be viewed as a bully.
Such awkward scenarios are 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 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 as yet seen little evidence — involves some measure of curtailment of host’s freedoms to engage in their business — and would impose what many would view as inappropriate investigation, combined with (in the case of mandatory instant book) what could be seen as corporate expropriation of private property. Our homes belong to us — not to Airbnb. One thing that Kristen Clarke has quite wrong in her op-ed, is the idea that Airbnb is one big hotel chain — as if 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. 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?
How much discrimination is there? We the general public dont’ really know…Airbnb will know more about this. In some sense, the actual number of cases of alleged discrimination on Airbnb is less relevant than what actions or policies are being suggested as a result of them. 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, 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.
It happens to many guests or prospective renters, regardless of their race, sexual orientation, age, etc that they face a lot of declines/rejections before they are accepted. This was referred to on the comments section of the Op-Ed article by Kristen Clarke. People who do not have experience renting out a room in their home may not understand much about the business, but — particularly if one is offering a place that is inexpensive and conveniently located, it’s common both to get quite a number of interested parties, as well as a number of inquiries that are clearly not a good fit. Prospective renters can be easily offended if they are not given a legitimate sounding reason for a rejection — I recall one Craigslist inquirer who implored me to tell him what he was doing wrong, as apparently he wasn’t hearing back from anyone he contacted — but need to realize that those offering accomodations dont’ want to get into arguments. Also, particularly in a litigious nation like the USA where people can literally make a living filing lawsuits — homeowners are wary of being tricked into saying something that could be twisted to use to try to accuse them of discrimination on some basis.
I believe that in many cases guests are not presenting themselves as well as they could to have success in finding a place. On the NYT Op-Ed there were also several comments by persons who said they were black and never had a difficult time finding an Airbnb. If one looks at the photos that some 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?
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. One thing I do when I look for a place to stay, is look for someone whose home is decorated either something like mine, or in a way I could imagine redecorating…..someone who has similar tastes in interior decoration, I reason, may have some similar soul qualities…besides which, their home looks like a place where I’d feel comfortable. 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 select the hosts and listings that were the inappropriate matches for oneself, and then ask (or better yet, demand!) to stay there. I’m not suggesting all guests who complain about not getting accepted have done this…but to make the point that this is possible to do.
For instance — if you’re a high fashion guest, jet-setter, sporting pearls, make-up, elaborate hair style, designer clothes, and look like you would fit well in one of the most expensive of five-star hotels, your inquiry to stay at an inexpensive, worn-out little old neighborhood home with thrift-shop character, and a host who is dowdily dressed and offbeat, might strike her as inexplicable. She might feel she was being set-up for what among hosts is known as a “revenge review”…namely… the guest who expects the Ritz Carleton in Paris or Manhattan at the price of a Motel 6 off the freeway in Scranton…and rates the host down viciously for not providing what she never said she would provide. Particularly given the frequency at which guests book places to stay without even reading the descriptions hosts provide (so that we often hear stories of a guest who is allergic to cats, arriving at a home with a host who has cats, and demanding “why didn’t you tell me”, when in fact the host mentioned the cats 2-3 times in their listing), hosts are naturally looking not only for someone who says that they want to stay with them, but who seems they would fit.
I bring this up because, given the investment that some individuals have in “proving” that there is “a lot of racism out there” , it stands to reason that at least some such individuals would either focus on places where they are not likely to fit well, 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 feel that they 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 — even if they were declined with a black photo and accepted with a white one.
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 oriented towards viewing people through superficial forms of “identity” such as skin color or sexuality, and towards valuing victimhood. Second, we have in this nation, an obsession with discrimination and racism in particular — it’s worth noting that although there were slightly more publicized instances of overt discrimination in Airbnb against gays and transgender individuals than against black individuals (though we have no idea what instances exist that have not been publicized) , we are seeing a large amount of articles in the media about “racism on Airbnb” and very little about homophobia or transphobia in Airbnb.
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 swindlers than racists), I challenge anyone to find a means to dig their way out from under this accusation. (I think Airbnb is at this moment strenuously trying.)
So again…what to do if an Airbnb guest has done all they could to have a good presentation, and is inquiring at listings and with hosts with whom they feel some connection or feels they were 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 very important topics to many 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, probably should do nothing about covert discrimination on the Airbnb platform — meaning, situations where hosts are declining guests for discriminatory reasons, but not stating this overtly.
Well, almost nothing…a fellow host recently had a good idea….which she shared with me…..I think Airbnb could clarify, that “Airbnb listings are the properties of private individuals who have sole discretion about whom to invite into their private homes.” Such a statement would help clarify, to those who are pointing fingers and scapegoating Airbnb, that as a third party it is not and cannot be responsible for the choices of its hosts…who are not running hotels, but offering space in their homes. Instead of accepting the accusations of racism/discrimination as a challenge, a tech problem to figure out how to solve, and rising up to meet this challenge with world-class consultation and technology, in my view Airbnb would have done much better to clarify that hosts, not Airbnb, are accepting guests, and hosts have freedom, and they aren’t obligated to accept anyone.
The principle I am employing in this statement that it would be better for Airbnb not to take action to try to address covert discrimination, discrimination in decision making, 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, 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, and in fact, I accept almost all comers and hate to turn anyone down because I hate the thought that I might hurt someone’s feelings, and am so honored when someone wants to stay at my house.
But when they come, guests will 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 birds. I dont’ want just anyone here — but I do invite most who ask to come.
But what if there really is a pattern of discrimination that can be discerned, 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 other questions — “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 isn’t this a form of bullying?
If a hypothetical lesbian guest named Monika, who traveled often, felt frustrated that she was generally declined by 5 out of 6 hosts she inquired with — suppose that those 5 out of 6 hosts’ listings were no longer available — would that improve Monika’s situation in seeking a place to stay? My argument is that it would not, and that having more hosts & more listings — even hosts which do not accept all comers, or who decline Monika for whatever reason — can only help rather than hinder in availing someone of a place to stay.
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 wouldn’t have worked out for them to stay in a home where they weren’t wanted or the host thought they wouldn’t fit. 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 what if 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 potentially creating weak people who can’t cope with everyday experience. As one commenter put it —
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 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.
It’s also a mischaracterization of the claims about discrimination relating to Airbnb hosts’ homes to speak of them as “public accomodations.” Private homes are not public accomodations — see this forum post on this issue — this is something that seems to be misunderstood by many of those who are demanding access to other’s houses. While a case can definitely be made for ensuring that blacks and gays/lesbians 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 inappropriate for private homes, and should not be applied to private homes, since property owners must retain the ability and the right to live comfortably in their own homes.
It would be disrespectful 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 people with a libertarian bent tend to appreciate smaller governments and smaller books of rules. Although I don’t oppose all anti-discrimination laws, it is actually typical of Libertarians to oppose anti-discrimination laws in the private sector — 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 a new category included in such laws: transgender status. Some are now arguing that to hold a philosophical viewpoint in which you dont’ agree 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 individual could in some instances cost a person their 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.
Discrimination laws cover things like race, national origin, sex, religion. …but there are other groups lining up, eager to be covered by anti-discrimination laws. .There are now, for instance, people who generously tip the scales, who are pining for “fat discrimination” to be added into the list of categories of persons one may not discriminate against. 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, could be viewed an expression of contempt for the freedom of that private property owner, and an expression of disregard for their need to be able to be comfortable in perhaps the only place that they have for this in the world.
Some argue that since it is a fact that there are groups of minorities who have experienced discrimination, there is no other way to provide redress to this, and promote equality, than by forms of affirmative action or anti-discrimination policies. I won’t argue that it’s of no value to pursue equality of access or opportunity, as it certainly is. Yet regardless the sufferings or oppressions that any particular person or group of people has experienced in their life or in history, many will feel that their private property is not available to either the government, or to any private corporation, to make amends to solve such issues. Governments or private corporations wishing to help redress historical or socially systemic wrongs, may offer their own private property for that purpose, but it would not be right to expropriate other’s private property for that use.
As a thought experiment….consider what would happen if the government (or a private corporation!) wished to solve the (ever-increasing!) problem of homelessness, by forcing private homeowners to take in and house a homeless individual, against the homeowner’s wishes. An argument could be made that it would be far less of a burden for a homeowner to house just one homeless person, than for that person to have to live on the sidewalk. This argument is not as far-fetched as it may seem, since the various rent control laws which exist do to some extent accomplish the same end of forcing private property owners to provide charity to others, against their wishes.
Another consideration is as regards the implications of a global cultural imposition of anti-discrimination laws of an American corporation. It’s one thing to set up anti-discrimination laws in a nation which is already very familiar with this concept. It’s quite a different thing to expect to apply those laws to other nations and cultures which may have very different values. To illustrate this point, let me tell a story.
When I was young, when I was young and lesbian, a very free and freespirited young lesbian I was. I was an activist, an organizer of other gay activists, we sometimes had fun going on an outing to a suburban shopping mall in a very “straight” area and being very blatantly “gay” there…in all kinds of “drag”. It was fun when I was young to be “in your face” in public places sometimes… especially since in the 1970’s and early 1980’s gays were very narrowly known and it was pretty widely thought that gays were freaks, perverts. The response of many, when we talked of gay marriage, was to exclaim , “what next, will people want to marry cows or horses or sheep? ”
Fast forward to 35 years later….it’s not a thing to do for gay people to go in drag to suburban shopping malls any more— instead of getting a rise out of being “in your face” to homophobes, they would be viewed, particularly by the young teens, as delightfully providing everyone free entertainment.
So what to do?!?! The young folks say …we are bored and must know!! I know! We’ve heard that Airbnb is passing an anti-discrimination policy! Great…this means, that those nasty Christian fundamentalist homophobes, can’t turn down gays anymore! So I have an idea, let’s deluge a bunch of random people in a ho hum southern town with inquiries from random young urban gays (our Airbnb profiles loudly proclaiming that we are QUEEEER) wanting, inexplicably, to stay with a quiet heterosexual couple/family in a southern town far from anyplace that could possibly interest us. We can collect up a bunch of declines, and then publicize it and force them all off Airbnb! Or….
And if this technique is effective in the South, imagine how effective it would be in getting hosts banned when deployed in Saudi Arabia or Russia, — in the latter it is a crime to “propogandize” about homosexuality to minors, or engage displays of “perverted” affection.
And in Saudi Arabia…well…if your goal is to really push the agenda there…you just might not ever return home… regardless how welcoming your host is. Your host can’t control their nation’s culture and its values. And in some nations, they could put their own safety in their community at risk if they are perceived as supporting or encouraging what there are viewed as unacceptable American/Western values. As well, some nations have laws which on their face conflict with Western anti-discrimimation policies. As I understand it, in Saudi Arabia it’s prohibited by law for a woman to give shelter to a single man who is not a relative of hers. Perhaps that is why in the only listing I could find in all of Saudi Arabia where the host is female, states that she will accept single women and couples. So what would she do if Airbnb forced her to abide by an anti-discrimination policy that prohibited discrimination against guests on the basis of sex/gender, when her nation requires that she discriminate on the basis of gender?
As clear as it is that some places in the world have challenges ahead in the area of human rights and civil rights, I don’t think that the way to address this is by a campaign of American social engineering transplanted through ordinary person’s guest – homes. I think this would be misguided. If a company is going to have a global anti-discrimination policy, but not apply it in places where it’s inconvenient to do so…that would seem hypocritical, and pointless as a global policy. Recall too — the experience of being declined by several Airbnb hosts that prompted Kristen Clarke to write her Op-Ed was one she had in Argentina…yet she quoted American Civil Rights laws…as if she intended to impose those on a foreign nation. I think we should avoid American politically correct hubris and realize that the pace of change of human cultures and values is not always our perogative to rush.
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??!”
Though one could try, with 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 , 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 and find the thought crimes there.
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 — in fact, the most worthy goal I believe any human being can have) — we can help open up people’s minds and hearts in many ways….but rules and policies, investigations, efforts to “root out” certain folks who have different values/philosophies, or who dont’ accept a guest, aren’t among those. For a corporation to state a set of values that they hope hosts would share and incorporate would be reasonable, but in my opinion there should be no “force” applied to hosts to accept those values.
Airbnb wishes that hosts would be “welcoming” — and “belonging” is its trademark, its brand. “Inclusive” is a term very similar to “welcoming”, and most hosts want to be welcoming. That is why we are hosts! We love to be welcoming people, including others and helping them feel cared for and that they “belong.” Even so, there is a big difference between the host themselves making the postive move to “include” a guest in their home, or welcome them, versus that host feeling pressured or forced to be “welcoming” to that guest. The end may be exactly the same — whether a host freely welcomes a guest or feels forced to take someone in — the guest is still taken in. But I contend that the difference in lack of liberty is crucial. A welcome doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t freely offered, if it isn’t genuine. 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 as they run their private business.
As well, there is something about not having a right to insist on staying at someone’s home, but rather being dependent upon being accepted by the host, that I think makes guests more appreciative and grateful when they are in fact accepted — and this can bode well for harmony in their stay there. Many Airbnb hosts, having heard about the allegations of racism and discrimination against Airbnb, have actually been moved in a spirit of kindness and generosity to extend a “special welcome” to those guests who they feel might not be getting the full message of welcome. Imagine one of those hosts extending such a “special welcome” to a guest, — and how taken aback that host would feel to open their front door and find that guest standing at the door with a hammer in her hand, ready to break the door down if she hadn’t been welcomed in. (I speak metaphorically and figuratively — referring back to Kristen Clarke with her “hammer” of Federal Civil Rights Laws) A grateful attitude rather than an entitled one in the guest really helps the whole stay be more comfortable for all involved.
As well, there have been many, many stories of serious problems that hosts have had with guests — too many to count — running the gamut from guests who refused to follow house rules, or were disrespectful to hosts, to those guests who threatened or even physically attacked hosts, or vandalized, damaged or stole their property, sometimes to the tune of many thousands of dollars in loss. A few of these stories are documented here . As much as we would like to be compassionate and welcoming to many people, and extend a genuine sense of “belonging” to as many as we can, it would be facile to deny the real risks that hosts face, and — as could occur if Airbnb made instant book a mandatory feature for all hosts — not only disrespectful but dangerously arrogant and neglectful to deny hosts the opportunity to protect their own homes. And the best way to allow hosts to protect their homes, is to guard their freedom to be the sole arbiters of who will have entry there.
To summarize —
I believe that, in considering issues of discrimination, Airbnb should act on instances of overt discrimination, as laid out for instance in the Fair Housing Act in US law, here: https://www.craigslist.org/about/FHA. As for the rest — the private decisions hosts are making about whom to invite into their homes — this should be off-limits to government or corporate policing and investigation. 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. Hosts 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 ought to be 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. People who take any guests at all can only be advantageous for Airbnb and for guests, availing all of more options of where to stay. There are so many wonderful places to stay now, and so many different kinds of hosts, I feel confident that every sincere person who looks for a place to stay will find a home to be welcomed into, where they too can feel “belonging.”
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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.