A new study by Harvard professors suggests that having an African-American name makes it harder to rent a place on Airbnb.
Renters with white sounding names booked successfully 50 per cent of the time, compared to 42 per cent for African American names, according to the working paper.
It doesn’t matter if the host was white or African American, if they were sharing the place or not, or whether it was expensive or cheap. On all levels, African-American sounding names had a harder time booking a room.
“On the whole, our analysis suggests a need for caution: while information can facilitate transactions, it also facilitates discrimination,” wrote the three researchers: Ben Edelman, Michael Luca, and Dan Svirsky.
To study discrimination, the authors sent 6,400 requests from profiles of fake Airbnb guests, using distinctly African-American or distinctly White names, and without profile photos. The researchers requested bookings in five cities — Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C — through Airbnb, and found that the African-American sounding names were accepted less frequently across the board.
Airbnb’s reliance on real names open the door for some discrimination on the part of the hosts who get to decide who stays in their rental, the Harvard researchers argue.
Most marketplaces, like eBay or Expedia, either allow screen names or allow anonymous activity. For Expedia, there is no one screening a name to decide yes or no. On eBay or Amazon marketplace, you can use any name you want.
It’s a problem that becomes more alarming given Airbnb’s growth rate. The researchers created a Chrome browser plug-in to mask identifying information on the Airbnb site and has encouraged the home-rental site to adopt the same stance. Having more Instant Book properties, where like an Expedia the guest doesn’t need approval from the home owner before booking, would also help close the gap.
An Airbnb spokesperson told Business Insider that they are already in touch with the authors of the study to work together with them.
“We are committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world. We recognise that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community,” the spokesperson said.
This is not the first time Airbnb has been accused of having a racism problem.
In 2014, a Harvard study also involving Edelman found the site’s large photos of hosts’ houses made it easy to determine their race and encouraged bias.