Sixty-three years ago, A Raisin in the Sun made its Broadway debut and shined a spotlight on the plight of African Americans facing housing discrimination. Sadly, many African Americans to this day are still facing some of the same issues as the Youngers, and the introduction of Airbnb in the gig economy, has not fared any better, until now.  

In Oregon, Airbnb is trying a radical experiment to try and alleviate hosts’ discriminatory practices by altering the way a guest profile name would appear amidst the process of booking. At the end of last year, Airbnb released a statement about their new policy—“Hosts will start seeing an Oregon guest’s initials in place of the guest’s first name until a booking request is confirmed. After a booking is confirmed, the guest’s name will appear. This change will be fully implemented by January 31, 2022 and in effect for at least two years. ”  

Harvard Business School professors and a doctoral student conducted an experiment around this issue back in 2015, and their study, Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment was published by the American Economic Association. Their research found “that applications from guests with distinctively African-American names are 16% less likely to be accepted relative to identical guests with distinctively White names. Discrimination occurs among landlords of all sizes, including small landlords sharing the property and larger landlords with multiple properties…While rental markets have achieved significant reductions in discrimination in recent decades, [their] results suggest that Airbnb’s current design choices facilitate discrimination and raise the possibility of erasing some of these civil rights gains.” 

Airbnb’s new policy occurred almost three years after a lawsuit settlement with Pat Harrington, Carlotta Franklin and Ebony Price, “three African-American women who alleged that the site allowed hosts to discriminate against Black users by displaying their full names and photographs, in violation of Oregon’s public accommodation laws,” NPR reports. 

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Airbnb’s statement indicated that “[a]s part of our ongoing work, we will take any learnings from this process and use them to inform future efforts to fight bias.” 

Reinette Jones, a librarian for the University of Kentucky, who has conducted a large body of research around African-American names and their origins, said “There’s nothing wrong with natural curiosity about a customer, based solely on his or her name, as long as it doesn’t lead to a discriminatory act…Once we hear a name or read a name, we do all kinds of mental gymnastics with that names…You hear a name and we try to put the person together in our mind regardless of what the name is…And sometimes it’s done in a very negative way, sometimes it impacts the person financially, emotionally, and spiritually. And other times, it’s innocent. So I can’t say one size fits all.” 

As an article in The Root aptly stated, “Black people with ‘black-sounding’ names have always faced discrimination and stigma,” and in recent years, Black people who have suffered discrimination while traveling, “launched the popular hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack.” Currently, this experiment will only be launched in one state, Oregon. Liz DeBold Fusco, Airbnb spokeswoman, stated “Given that the impact of this change is unknown, the implementation will be limited.” 

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