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May 17, 2016 was the 62nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s famous Brown v. Board decision. The ultimate dream of Brown v. Board was the “full accommodation and integration of African Americans into all institution and living venues” (Mock, 2016). However, this is a dream that has proven illusive in the six decades that have followed the decision. While there is obvious evidence of progress that has been made because of the court decision, and the legislation and practices it inspired, it is impossible to ignore the deleterious effect race still has on individuals that are attempting to find housing. Housing discrimination remains an issue that many people in the United States have troubling recognizing the existence of despite evidence to the contrary (Louis, 2016). The issues that this paper will focus on imply that this relationship between race and housing won’t easily be an issue resolved in the next sixty years either.
This paper will focus on teasing apart the relationship between race and the discrimination Black Airbnb users experience. First, it will attempt to establish the validity of claims that there is a pattern of discrimination that Black users are experiencing. Furthermore, it will consider the legal protections granted to Black Airbnb users by federal civil rights legislation. Lastly, extrajudicial solutions that either Airbnb or its users can take to address this problem will be considered. Differences in treatment based on race for the purpose of this paper will focus solely on the differences between White and Black Airbnb users in the United States. This analysis will use the research studies conducted on the racial discrimination experienced by Black Airbnb hosts and renters, news articles discussing the issue, the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act, federal civil-rights statute 42 U.S. Code § 1981 and the tweets of Black Airbnb users to understand the experience of Black Airbnb users. It necessary to begin this analysis by establishing what Airbnb is and what service it provides its users.
Airbnb is a website that people use to list, find, and rent lodging. It facilitates the transactions between individuals, and main revenue source comes from the fees it makes when hosts successfully fill their rooms. Today Airbnb has over 1,500,000 listings in over 34,000 cities and 190 countries (Smith, 2015). Unlike other online room rental systems like Expedia and Priceline, Airbnb encourages its users to provide personal information when attempting to find a room (Airbnb, 2016). This allows Airbnb hosts to handpick the users they will transact with. In the eight years since its founding Airbnb has grown to provide three times as many rooms as major international hotel chains, like Marriott, worldwide (Smith, 2015). With the recent emergence of sharing economies, hybrid market models that rely on peer-to-peer based sharing of access to goods and services that are coordinated usually by an online service (Hamari, Sjöklint, & Ukkonen, 2015), there are a growing number of businesses and users that fall into a legal gray area. Airbnb is no exception to this trend. Online competitors Priceline and Expedia have explicit restrictions on what information, including race, they could use to reject guests for a particular hotel room (O’Donovan, 2016). However, it is unclear if those same restrictions would apply when the same hotel room was listed on Airbnb. The ambiguity surrounding Airbnb’s legal status is central to the issue of racial discrimination that Black users are reporting. It is unclear what, if any, legal remedies users can seek because it is unclear what Airbnb legally is considered to be. This is a common trend in new shared economies and some clarity needs to be established in order to address what users are experiencing. In lieu of having a set definition, this paper will consider each of the possible legal definitions of Airbnb and what that means for its Black users. Now the reported discrimination of Black Airbnb users will be explored to determine they are experienced a substantial harm based on their federally protected racial identity.
Discrimination Experienced by Airbnb Users
The first source for the discrimination that Black Airbnb users experienced are the tweets that they posted in response to the experiences that users have. They provide an opportunity for users to publicly share their side of the story. Additionally, these messages are associated with specific people whose credibility can be determined by other tweets associated with their account. Social media, and twitter specifically, have now established a history of being effectively used in social justice movements from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement (Hands, 2011). Twitter provides a platform for individuals to connect and share experiences with each other that allow them to quickly identify when there is a pattern of negative treatment. This facilitates the ability for individuals to band together to either socially or legally seek recompense, which has been the response generated from the #AirbnbWhileBlack (Vedantam, Penman, & Nesterak, 2016). Connections like these were not as easy to form in 1964 or 1968 when the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act were passed. Individuals were more susceptible to the predatory practices of landlords, homeowners, mortgage holders, and others that sold property (Coates, 2014; Dreams of a City, 1996). Entire cycles of property owners and new Black community members would experience the same pattern of discrimination, in part because they didn’t realize the treatment that they were receiving was due to discrimination (Coates, 2014; Dreams of a City, 1996). The ability to communicate when discrimination occurs is an additional layer of protection produced by social media to supplement the legal protections that exist. In order to fully understand how functionality of “Black Twitter.”
The journalist Meredith Clark defines Black Twitter as a temporally linked group of tweeters that shape culture, language, and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics within a Black frame of reference (Ramsey, 2015). Here Black isn’t limited to African Americans, but Blacks throughout the African diaspora. However, Black Twitter is not unique purely because of the race of the users that make up the community. The members of Black Twitter also have a unique way of using the product. Members tend to form tighter clusters on the network. Additionally, they tend to follow one another more readily and retweet each other more often. More of their posts tend to be @-replies, posts directed at other uses (Rudder, 2014). While it is unclear if this is intentional behavior or not, this gives Black people, Black young people specifically, the means to dominate the conversation on Twitter. Most users on Twitter follow institutions (celebrities, journalists, products) that don’t follow them back (Rudder, 2014). The mainstream use of the service is organized based on such one-to-many communication. However, within Black Twitter Black users tend to focus on personal use and are highly reciprocal. This allows Black users to bring their topics to the Trending Topic list without utilizing the traditional means of communication. This is important because it empowers people that typically have limited representation in media to share their stories and to elevate their stories so they can receive attention from mainstream news outlets. It is also important because it unites people that might be geographically isolated from other members of the Black community that they would have these conversations with. This has definitely been the case for #AirbnbWhileBlack.
Now that it is clear how Black Twitter connects it users it is possible to analyze the stories have emerged from #AirbnbWhileBlack. These trends could be organized into complaints about host behavior, complaints about renters, and changes they made to improve their experience.
The first trend revealed by the tweets made as part of users were denied lodging. One main occurrence was that White hosts upon beginning conversation with Black users, would suddenly respond that the lodging was no longer available upon what appeared to the Black users as when there racial identity was discovered (O’Donovan, 2016). However, these users would often check and see that the same lodging would continue to be listed on Airbnb despite the host claiming them to be unavailable (O’Donovan, 2016). Another response that potential renters experienced was hosts simply ceasing to respond to the potential Black renter (O’Donovan, 2016). This meant that potential Black renters would be unable to move forward in the process of renting the lodging. These strategies that White hosts used resemble strategies that real estate agents and other property managers used when dealing with Black renters or property manager’s (Dewan, 2013; Coates, 2014). In both cases the people managing the property do not state any influence the race of the would be property purchaser has, but the pattern of abuse remains evident.
The second trend that was revealed by the tweets was a pattern in which Black hosts were paid consistently less than other Airbnb hosts. One main occurrence was that Black hosts would frequently encounter potential renters that would start the renting process and then attempt to rent the location for substantially less than the listed price range (Mock, 2016). Another phenomenon is that Black users report having great difficulty renting out locations in places that are in frequently rented (Mock, 2016). This holds even when there are major events such as concerts and athletic competitions that draw in a large number of temporary guests. Lastly, renters are more likely to cancel last minute on Black hosts, seemingly because they realize the racial identity about the host (Mock, 2016). Thus we can see that Black renters experienced users that undercut their prices and were more likely to cancel close to the date of their renting of the location.
An additional trend that was revealed is how the Black Airbnb users report the White Airbnb users think and speak about race. Professor Markus and Professor Moya in their text Doing Race outline eight conversations that people use to navigate their personal and interpersonal understanding of race in the United States. The tweets suggests that White Airbnb users are following the philosophy of the fourth conversation, that race is simply identity politics. This conversation centers around the belief that race is simply something that detracts from the universal human concerns that people share. It manifests itself as a fatigue for discussing race and ethnicity and that people that make claims about discrimination are simply drawing attention to themselves and attempting to win unjustified sympathy (Markus & Moya, n.d.). In response to being confronted by the possibly racial implications of their action many Black Airbnb users report White users responding by claiming that they were simply victimizing themselves and that they were frustrated by people constantly accusing others of being racist. This conversation provides useful insight into the possible perspective that the White Airbnb users either consciously or subconsciously use to justify their behavThe final trend that was revealed was the fact that users manipulated their profile to mask their perceived Blackness. One way that people masked their racial identity was to use nicknames or similar sounding names on their profile (O’Donovan, 2016). Another strategy that users used was to make their profile picture simply pictures of landscape from the city where they lived (O’Donovan, 2016). Another strategy was to include White seeming activities that they enjoyed. Common activities that people listed included ballroom dancing, hiking, and camping (O’Donovan, 2016). These three strategies were primarily about decreasing the perceived Blackness of profiles and were utilized by both renters and hosts. A renter unique strategy was that some users created fake profiles of White users to book rooms and just included themselves as a guest. Users found that these strategies tended to be successful and decreased the presence of the aforementioned patterns of discrimination that they experienced.
The trends that emerged appear to come from implicit bias rather than more explicit forms of prejudices. Stanford Professor Jennifer Eberhardt defines implicit bias as a bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes that often operate a level below conscious processes that often operate a level below conscious awareness and without intentional control (Markus & Moya, n.d.). Professor Eberhardt elaborates that this is built upon the negative associations that people have for black individuals that are often subconsciously used to justify the difference of treatment the individual Black Airbnb users are reporting. For example, the association between crime and Blacks might make one less willing to allow an individual to stay in a property that is the host’s home. Additionally, the host might be worried that the Black renter might damage the property. These associations have been found in the experimental psychological research that Professor Eberhardt has conducted and is likely the psychological mechanism behind the disparate treatment that Black Airbnb users are reporting on Twitter.
These specific patterns that were reported by Twitter users also were found in experimental social science research. These articles were important because the reports from Twitter users are difficult to corroborate. First, it is difficult to validate the claims that are made by Twitter users. We don’t know with 100% certainty that everyone reporting discrimination is reporting upon their own experience, even if we are able to identify trends that exist in the tweets. Additionally, it is almost impossible to collect the perspective of the White Airbnb users that the Twitter users are discussing. These tweets are only one part of the interaction and it would be unfair to completely describe the interaction without taking into account the intention and perspectives of the other half of the interaction. Another benefit of using experimental social science research is that it allows for the causality of race for the difference in treatment by controlling for other factors that might also be the cause of difference. There are two such research studies that have been conducted focused on the difference in experience Black Airbnb renters and Black Airbnb hosts when compared to White Airbnb renters and White Airbnb hosts.
The first study conducted by Edelman, Luca, & Svirsky examined the experience of racial discrimination of Airbnb guests. The field experiment focused on the behavior of all Airbnb property hosts from Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington DC as of July 2015 (Edelman, Luca, & Svirsky, 2016). The experimenters took care to track, the race, gender, and age of the hosts and used two to three Amazon Mechanical Turkers to categorize these demographics. The experiment also controlled for other possible variables including: the number of properties each host had ever offered on Airbnb, the number of reviews the host had, and the race of the reviewers as a proxy of the race of the people that stayed at properties managed by the host. Lastly, they collected information about the specific property concerning the recorded price of the property, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the stated cancellation policy, any cleaning fee, the property’s ratings from past guests, and whether the property was for an entire unit or just a room in the larger unit. The experiment design relied on the researchers creating twenty Airbnb accounts that were equally divided into four different treatment groups: Black female renter, Black mal