Racial discrimination skews Airbnb rentals, study claims

Guests with African-American sounding names are 16-percent less likely to get a room

Renting a room at a hotel is a fairly blind process: if you can pay the rate and the hotel has vacancy, you've got a place to rest your head. Airbnb is a little different -- allowing hosts to accept or deny guests at their leisure. The system is designed to create familiarity for hosts renting rooms out of their home. According to a new study, however, it also opens the door for racial discrimination.

The study, conducted by staff from the Harvard business school, sent housing requests to 6,400 randomized hosts across five US cities (Baltimore, Dallas, St. Louis, Washington and Los Angeles) from 20 different Airbnb accounts, all of them identical save for the names and genders of the proposed guest. Accounts with "African-American-sounding" names like Lakisha and Tyrone were 16% less likely to secure a room than their white-named counterparts.

It's not a one way street, either -- researchers found bias flowing towards African-American guests from both male, female, white and African-American hosts. With only one small study to go from, there isn't significant data to absolute prove that racial discrimination is overwhelmingly common in the Airbnb network, but the study offers an interesting perspective on the effect bias, but concious and unconscious, might be having on the the online marketplace.

It also proposes an interesting problem: as a non-traditional hotel service, how does a company like Airbnb combat this kind of behaviour? The study itself offers a few simple solutions: hide guest names from hosts until a reservation is accepted, expand Airbnb's "instant book" program and implement audit policies to ensure hosts are booking without discrimination. Check out the full paper for yourself at the source link below.

[Image credit: AP Photo]