Unlike a traditional hotel, Airbnb is structured to give hosts absolute discretion in picking their guests. While a hotel can turn away pets, an Airbnb host can browse applicant's profiles with Tinder-like scrutiny. This, according to a group of Harvard researchers [PDF], invites racial discrimination.
Sharing-economy startups like Airbnb and Uber "often grant sellers the ability to handpick the people they transact with," write the study's authors. "If a hotel lists a room on Expedia, platform rules effectively prevent the hotel from rejecting a guest based on perceived race, ethnicity, or almost any other factor. But if the same hotel lists a room on Airbnb (which some hotels have begun to do), it could reject a guest based on these factors."
The group catalogued the reception of "distinctively African-American names" by sending requests to more than 6,000 hosts across Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington. The researchers left the picture field blank in each fictional profile, and included identical profile information on each page.
All told, the "African-American" names got positive responses 42% of the time, while names that sounded more "white" were accepted 50% of the time. Tamika received fewer positive responses than Kristen, and Darnell received fewer positive responses than Brad.
The study's authors suggest that Airbnb could counteract the practice by removing guest's names from the platform until a room is confirmed. The startup, as the NY Times points out, is invested in transparency.
"We are committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world," said spokesman Jacob Kerr in response to the study's findings.
"We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges," he added. "And we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community."