Sharing discrimination in the sharing economy

22 Jan

I think this headline sums up the Harvard Business School study best: “Black People Get Screwed on Airbnb” (http://valleywag.gawker.com/harvard-study-black-people-get-screwed-on-airbnb-1505185859). To summarize, researchers found that:

… non-black hosts are able to charge approximately 12% more than black hosts, holding location, rental characteristics, and quality constant. Moreover, black hosts receive a larger price penalty for having a poor location score relative to non-black hosts. These differences highlight the risk of discrimination in online marketplaces, suggesting an important unintended consequence of a seemingly-routine mechanism for building trust.

Let’s be clear: this finding isn’t ground-breaking. It’s the same effect researchers have found in studies of bias in reviewing resumes (http://www.epi.org/publication/webfeatures_snapshots_archive_09172003/) and housing applications (http://www.huduser.org/portal/publications/hsgfin/hds.html): all other things being held equal, race will skew our valuation (including trust and liking) of a person, not just according to our personal preferences, but according to normative attitudes about different racial groups. All this, without our ever having to admit that race had anything to do with our rejection or acceptance of them. [Note: This isn’t just about being black or white. Discrimination embraces the full spectrum of race and ethnicity, as well as other identifiers: notably, when it comes to housing, sexuality, sex, gender, socioeconomics, class, age and physical ability. That said, I’m focusing here on the findings of this study, which found “broadly similar results” when it looked at the data for “white” and “black” hosts, versus “black” and all “non-black” hosts (HBS used these categories to identify Airbnb hosts: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Unclear but Non-white, Multiple Races, Not Applicable (no people in picture), or Unclear/Uncertain).

Like Airbnb we all think we’re better than discrimination. The SF-based company responded to the HBS study by declaring, “We are committed to making Airbnb the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent community in the world and our Terms of Service prohibit content that discriminates.” Here’s the thing: a policy does not justice make. In fact, a policy sometimes enables injustice because we think having the policy means that now we obviously don’t discriminate. So we, in effect, give ourselves and our tacit biases free rein to discriminate because–just read our policy–we don’t mean to.

I find ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle’s analysis of the core issue interesting:

Of course, this wouldn’t be a case of Airbnb employing discriminatory policies, or encouraging discrimination—at worst, they’re just facilitating it as a middleman. But it’s a reminder that the “sharing economy” isn’t a fist-bump feel-good utopia, as advertised—we share all our dirty prejudices, too.

I both agree with Sam and resist letting Airbnb off as “just” facilitating racism. Because any facilitation is… facilitation. Arguably, whether they meant to encourage discrimination or not, Airbnb designed their site so race, sex and other identifiers we think we can read in a headshot are prominent features of every renter’s posting–and, therefore, factors in every rentee’s selection process. And presuming that any community, digital, sharing or otherwise, is free of human bias isn’t just naïve. It’s choosing to deny human nature and dynamics. And the only way we can change the things we don’t like about our attitudes and actions is to be aware of them, own them and choose otherwise.

I’m not arguing for a lawsuit against Airbnb. I’m just asking that we all learn something here. I’m waiting for the day when a company receives a study like this about the unintended effects its intended business is having, and that company says: Thank You. We had no idea. We want our company to create a better space for people to engage and thrive. And we appreciate your help making our business better–not just for our customers, but for us, too. Here’s what we’re gonna do…

I’m patient (sometimes). I can wait.

You can read the complete HBS study here: http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/14-054_e3c04a43-c0cf-4ed8-91bf-cb0ea4ba59c6.pdf.

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