I’m a black man. Here’s what happened when I booked an Airbnb

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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45 Responses

  1. j r says:

    I’m not sure that this is an AirBnB issue, other than the fact that the AirBnB platform facilitates the exchange of information between both sides of the transaction, which I suspect is a feature and not a bug. People want to know who is renting their places and renters want to know from whom they are renting. Is that a bad thing because some people abuse it?

    If a store clerk refused my platinum Amex card because I don’t look like the kind of guy who should have a platinum Amex, my response would be to blame the clerk and not Amex.

    I am curious to see what sort of solutions AirBnB might propose, but remain skeptical that any of those solutions would be a net gain in utility, either all around or for black/other minority users in specific.Report

    • North in reply to j r says:

      Agreed, I’d like to add that the writer on this one did a great job, he covered most of the angles. I am not, however, surprised AirbnB is trying to figure out an administrative way to deal with this as it aims a dagger at the heart of their business model. I do share your sentiments, JR, that it’d be hard as hell to tackle though.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to North says:

        Investigate this sort of complaint, and if it’s justified, issue a warning. After N warnings, you’re not allowed to list your place on AirBnB.Report

        • Aaron Warfield in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          Pretty much this, with the further caveat, that they should probably test ABB offerers(?) on a random basis for things like this. Put it into the contract, You Will Be Spot Checked.Report

        • j r in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          Right. So now AirBnB has to hire investigators trained to handle civil rights complaints and has to put in place some mechanism for adjudicating the correctness/legitimacy of these complaints and some other mechanism by which people can appeal the results of the former process. Add to this whatever legal and compliance costs come from all the extra process.

          That’s a decrease in utility across the system. And then we get to the question of whether it can work, which I get that some folks find superfluous. Life is funny this way. People with preferences find all sorts of ways of getting around the rules in place to try to force them towards different preferences. All of this has a cost. And at the end of the day, we are still left asking would all of that actually end up in an increase or decrease in utility for black AirBnB users.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to j r says:

            There is an alternative: encourage user feedback and do not allow hosts to unilaterally delete it (I believe a feedback system already exists though I don’t know how it works or how it is moderated). If I found a listing that had a bunch of comments from Black folks (or women or Jews or whoever) that said, “This dude screwed me cuz I’m Black (or a woman or Jewish or whatever),” I would not be inclined to rent from them. Not everyone will react that way — some may even react the opposite — but essentially you are letting the market provide more immediate feedback while AirBNB can then focus their investigations as necessary.

            I had a renter turn me down for what I suspect were issues related to me traveling with children. I don’t know if AirBNB has a policy against this; I can see arguments in favor of allowing a host to limit children (e.g., a shelf full of Fabrege eggs). The so-called “sharing economy” almost requires some room for shadiness.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

              AirBNB (and many other “sharing” apps) rely rather heavily on Trust.

              They’re in a weird space between the purely transactional relationship that LLCs occupy and the guy you know who has a spare bedroom that he’s chill with you hanging out in for a weekend or so if you buy gas and groceries.

              I don’t think that anybody would possibly have a problem with the guy you know saying “I ain’t gonna let some complete stranger stay in my extra room! Even if he does pony up for gas and groceries!”

              The problems seem to come up when the guy says “I’ll let *SOME* complete strangers stay here, but not others.”Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

                “Sorry, female rape survivor… you have to let the skeevy guy with a checkered past and whose profile pic is a bottle of rufies have a key to your house for a few days.”

                A question for the legal beagles… Does listing your apartment on AirBNB or similar services create a “public accommodation” that is bound by anti-discrimination laws and the like?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

                AirBNB, but for and by women.

                Is this something that would be okay?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Additionally, Our First Apartment (the crappy one, in the crappy part of town), had a NO PETS policy.

                But they made exceptions for cats.

                They couldn’t say “NO DOGS”. That was discriminatory. They could, however, say “NO PETS” but just not give a crap if the people staying there had a cat.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

                Discriminatory against whom?

                My honest answer to your question is… I really don’t know. I think gender/sex presents some unique challenges to anti-discrimination efforts. Hell, I’m not even sure that the whole “trans bathroom” situation is as cut-and-dry as some make it out to be and have a half-baked post in my mind where I muse about the seemingly contradictory stance taken by some trans advocates when they simultaneously say, “Where trans people go to the bathroom is of deep importance as they need to feel comfortable,” while also saying, “Cis women shouldn’t feel threatened by a trans woman in the bathroom. It’s just a bathroom plus the stalls have locks.” And I say that as someone who generally does support trans people being able to use the bathroom for the gender they identify as but just think this stuff is really, really complicated.

                That is why I asked about question about the blurring of the line between the person and the business. As a PERSON, any individual should have the right to limit access to their home to anyone they see fit. As a BUSINESS, I think the expectation should be that you provide non-discriminatory access. Where is the line between PERSON and BUSINESS when we’re talking about AirBNB? I really don’t know.

                Am I a monster if I say, “A woman can refuse to rent to a man but a white person can’t refuse to rent to a Black person?”

                Read the following statement with and without all the terms in parentheses: “A (white) woman who was raped by a (Black) man has the write to refuse renting to (Black) men.”

                It feels REALLY REALLY different. But is it? I REALLY REALLY REALLY don’t know.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

                Dogs, I guess. I’m just saying what the apartment manager told me when I mentioned that we had a cat. “Oh, we only say ‘NO PETS’ to be able to decline dogs.”Report

              • Guy in reply to Jaybird says:


                Service dogs, I would think. Although I think they’re supposed to be exempted anyway, it would create a convenience barrier, so there would probably be fewer.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Guy says:

                This wasn’t really a “service dogs” part of town.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:


                What is your take on the “AirBNB by and for women” idea?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

                My immediate gut reaction is some variant of “it’s her guest bedroom, she should be able to rent it out to whomever she wants without the government telling her that, no, she must rent it out to ex-felons.”

                But that immediately leads to “Should Motel 6 or Super 8 be able to deny service to ex-felons?” and my answer to that is “of course not, Motel 6 and Super 8 should rent rooms to whomever can pay the charge for the room. (With minor exceptions for people under 18 or what have you, as legislation allows.)”

                But *THAT* immediately leads to the question of “so the bakers should have had to bake the damned wedding cake?” and then I think… huh. Maybe. “So something like AirBnB but for Wedding Cakes could deny service to black people or homosexuals or bohemians or whatever?”

                Yeah… maybe.

                I dunno.

                But it does feel like the lady should be able to deny service to anybody she feels like denying service to when it comes to renting out her guest bed.

                But also the earliest restaurants were the front room of somebody’s house. You’d go to their house and pay them and they’d make you some meatloaf or something.

                But that immediately brings us back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

                Which I am not inclined to relitigate.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Let me clarify the “Which I am not inclined to relitigate.”

                “Which I’m not inclined to argue against.”Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

                Which makes it seem like you and I are roughly in the same place… huzzah?

                As I said in one of my comments, AirBNB and other companies like it are blurring the line between private individuals and public accommodations. I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing but it is definitely a thing that we need to figure out eventually (though maybe @j-r would say we don’t need to figure that out… a position I’d be curious to hear… if he indeed thinks that, of course…).Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Kazzy says:

                That’s generally the entire business model there — and it works by basically trying to avoid regulations and taxes (a cake and eat it too setup) and, well, exploiting the fact that most people don’t understand things like “depreciation”.

                I had someone who worked with Uber tell me he was making about 72 cents a mile. When I said something like “Is that over the wear and tear” and he told me “I would already be driving those miles”. (No. He didn’t put several hundred miles a day on his car before working for Uber. Because his previous existence was not eight or so hours of driving several days a week).

                He still thinks he’s making 72 cents a mil, and not something like 16 or so. It’s his car, and his confusion, and ultimately his pocketbook. But ultimately, it means his pay is a fraction of what he thinks it is. He’s screwing himself, and that is pretty much the Uber business model. Getting employees to work for about 25% of what they think they’re making.

                Plus, of course, avoiding regulations and taxes that other companies in the same industry have to pay.Report

              • trizzlor in reply to Jaybird says:

                How I imagine parties at Chez Jaybird to go:

                Guest: Hey Jaybird, I’m getting a bit tipsy, should I grab another drink or call it a night?
                Jaybird: Well, on the one hand, it would certainly be wrong for the government to come in and tell you what you can and cannot put into your body. But then you’re getting out on a public road and run the risk of harming others – your rights become limited when your car hits my kid, right? But that makes me think about the impact of alcohol deregulation – under Carter of all folks – that’s lead to the great craft brew craze that’s separating hipsters from their money, and how these laws tend to hit the poorest the hardest and that makes ….

                Guest: Uhm, that’s okay, I already finished it. What did you think of the last Nickleback album?
                Jaybird: Well, my immediate gut reaction is that it’s wrong for the government to censor a Canadian artist, but then I think ….Report

              • notme in reply to Jaybird says:

                Why not, someone started a women only version of uber. Maybe a women only pool will be next.Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to j r says:

            That’s a decrease in utility across the system.

            What is the utility of AirBnB?

            Specifically, how should we assess the value of this utility to the value of our social norms about inclusion?

            Our social norm says that racism is taboo, and we have constructed a set of social rules about it; there are words that are taboo, practices (like discrimination) that are forbidden, and we collectively punish the transgressors, sometimes with legal action, sometimes with social ostracism.

            On the other hand, we have social norms about freedom of association and privacy, which put limits on enforcement of all social norms.

            So in this case, we have a new method of transacting hotel rooms. How do we enjoy the utility of this, while ensuring compliance with our social norms?

            Noting that enforcement of social norms is a decrease in utility is correct, but is that a trump card, a definitive conclusion?

            Maybe the conclusion is that enforcement of the social norm is completely worth a decrease in utility.Report

            • j r in reply to Chip Daniels says:

              Maybe the conclusion is that enforcement of the social norm is completely worth a decrease in utility.

              That is easy to say when you’re not the one bearing the cost.

              More specifically, the point of my comment is that intentions are something different than results. If the results end up hurting minorities the most so that everyone else can feel good about social compliance, then maybe we ought not do that. So the relevant questions remain, “what more could AirBnB be doing?” and “what would the results be for minority users?”

              It’s very easy to design a system that puts a heavy penalty on discrimination that would end up with lots of users deciding that it’s better to not even answer messages and requests from minorities in the first place. The white people get to feel good about using a non-racist system, while it ends up being more difficult and more expensive for minorities to find rooms.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to j r says:

                I think @j-r was intentional and correct to note that he was concerned about the effect on utility for Black AirBNB users. Let’s say a strict enforcement of anti-discrimination caused rates to go up, due to A) compliance costs and B) some supply drying up. Would Black users rather pay $X/night but get rejected based on their race Y% of the time or pay $Z/night but know they will never get rejected based on their race? I can’t answer that question. Likely, each Black person is going to have a different answer and set different values for X, Y, and Z.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to j r says:

            Because the internet is a magical place where transaction costs are always zero, so suggesting that AirBnB, in addition to having an anti-discrimination policy, actually do something to enforce it is one step fro the Gulag.Report

            • j r in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              Do you actually read the comments or do you just imagine that what other people are saying is the perfect setup for whatever straw man you’ve got ready to deploy?Report

              • notme in reply to j r says:

                No, deploy the straw man in 3…2…1…Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to j r says:

                I’m not going to get into one of these back-and-forths where I keep quoting you and you keep denying that what you wrote means what it says.Report

              • j r in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I know you’re not because nothing I said implies that “the Internet is a magical place where transaction costs are always zero” or that asking AirBnB to take additional compliance measures is anything akin to “gulag.”

                You just pulled that out of your never regions.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to j r says:

                “You just pulled that out of your never regions.”

                Look, I hate Schilling’s puns as much as the next guy, but I’d never suggest that they relegate him to being barren, literally or figuratively.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I can think of two possible explanations for why you find yourself getting into these back-and-forths so often. One is that you keep getting into arguments with people who can’t make up their minds, and will vigorously recant things they have just said when you accurately repeat those things back to them. The other is that you are not, in fact, accurately repeating those things back.Report

          • trizzlor in reply to j r says:

            >>Right. So now AirBnB has to hire investigators trained to handle civil rights complaints and has to put in place some mechanism for adjudicating the correctness/legitimacy of these complaints and some other mechanism by which people can appeal the results of the former process.

            Alternatively, they could demonstrate awareness of the problem and explain why addressing it would have adverse effects on the victim class. People are aggrieved, the onus is on them to show that they’re doing all that’s reasonable to address it. Throwing your hands up in the air and saying “the market does what it wants” isn’t good enough.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          “After N warnings, you’re not allowed to list your place on AirBnB.”

          And soon we’ll see articles about “I’m a black man. Here’s what happened when someone booked my place on AirBnB…”Report

    • Guy in reply to j r says:

      They do seem to have an anti-discrimination policy, though. Maybe they don’t need to, but they have it and this phenomenon seems to be a violation of it.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to j r says:


      I think the issue is that were a traditional hotel or other room-for-rent type operation to engage in this practice, the guy would likely have an open-and-shut case to pursue about racial discrimination. He doesn’t because AirBNB isn’t a traditional hotel nor is it even a middle man between consumers and traditional hotels (e.g., Hotels.com).

      AirBNB simultaneously makes rental accommodations available to folks that they otherwise would not be able to access AND creates a system wherein discrimination can happen more readily.

      I don’t think his argument is, “AirBNB is causing discrimination.” I think it is, “AirBNB, your product ain’t what it cracked up to be.” Which seems like a valid criticism… even if the blame falls on the shoulders of the home owner.Report

      • j r in reply to Kazzy says:

        I find it an odd criticism in that if shifts the blame from the possibly racist individual to the booking system. AirBnB is a system for booking rooms, not a panacea to racism. It’s quite unfair to hold it responsible for operating in a country that still has a quite a bit of racism. It’s the sort of thing that makes us all feel quite good, but has questionable outcomes with regard to the results.

        More specifically it is very difficult to prove that someone refused a room to a certain kind of person. There are always a dozen other plausible reasons. And yes, AirBnB could simply choose to punish renters for the appearance of discrimination and that might reduce the number of complaints. But might just be due to lots of people either removing their listings from the site or changing the settings so that they can discriminate in a less obvious manner.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to j r says:

          Sure. I’m not sure AirBNB can do anything about it that will actually quell the practice OR can do anything about it that won’t destroy their model.

          Again, I’m not sure that the guy was blaming AirBNB for racism existing. I think he is saying, “Not everyone’s experience with AirBNB is identical. Excuse me if I do something other than sing its praises.” He also might be genuinely trying to notify AirBNB of this happening. They may think that their (apparently insufficient) anti-discrimination policy is working. He’s showing them it doesn’t seem to be.

          His post seemed much less complaint/criticism and much more, “Let me tell you how this went for me. This might shock some of y’all.”Report

          • j r in reply to Kazzy says:

            As a point if clarification , I dont have any problem with this guy telling his story. Quite the contrary, he ought to; this is what journalism is meant to be.

            My one issues is with this part:

            Last time I’ll be using AirBnB until they fix this widespread issue (they said they are addressing it and will come up with a solution).

            And it’s not an issue with him choosing not to use AirBnB. It’s the idea, echoed in Mike Schilling ‘s comment that this is an “issue” that has some solution that AirBnB has just failed to implement. I just find it an odd and somewhat naive outlook.

            Also, I’m not saying that AirBnB canot and should not do more. Every product or service is a work in progress. There can always be improvements.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to j r says:


              I think it depends a bit on how he arrived at that conclusion. Did he go to AirBNB and say,

              “Hey guys, this site sucks because of this,” and get a response saying, “You’re right, that sucks, let us fix it,” and he said, “Cool, I’ll be back if/when that happens”?

              Was it more like, “Hey guys, I’m not using your site until you fix this,” and got a response saying, “Um, okay, we’ll fix it and let you know when we do”?

              If it is the former, I don’t think his response is necessarily naive. If it is the latter, probably moreso. Lots of assumptions given that we don’t really know the ins and outs of his interactions with AirBNB.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Do we have an opinion on, ahem, sex workers who say stuff like “No Irish Need Apply”?Report

  3. Will Truman says:

    I guess I don’t know enough about how AirBnB works since I’ve never used it, but I’m not sure that the DogVacay model couldn’t work with them. With DogVacay, all inquiries, communications, and acceptances/rejections are on their system. Which is to say that if someone were to discriminate against someone else on the basis described here, it would take DogVacay two minutes to determine what happened. That doesn’t seem to be the case with AirBnB. Could it be? Or is there something about it that means that they can’t do it that way?

    Now, just because they can’t discriminate vocally due to race doesn’t mean that they couldn’t search for other excuses to accomplish the same thing. Is this better or worse? Opinions likely vary. However, it does seem to me that if it’s happening on their system there would be some tools on rejection rates and race where they might be able to ascertain patterns automatically.

    (To go back to DogVacay, they have a formula for determining whether people are cheating the system by circumventing the site for repeat customers. Our sitter does that. We met through DogVacay but then went around the system afterwards. She mentioned that she got caught by their algorithm, and that we needed to start going back and forth.)Report

    • Guy in reply to Will Truman says:

      They might just not keep the data. It’s not something you’d necessarily think of, and backups for a large service can be a pain.

      This isn’t to say they couldn’t keep the data (whatever part of it might be missing, like rejected or cancelled bookings), but if they don’t, switching over to a system where they do might be troublesome, especially if they don’t have the storage capacity for it.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Guy says:

        Storage capacity is cheap, and there are cloud solutions for it for…also…incredibly cheap.

        If AirBnB was the White House running on 15 year old PC’s and rules from 20 years ago, that’s one thing. But they’re, supposedly, all Internet 2.0 and stuff and I have no doubt their entire online system is already running on someone else’s cloud services. They’re not running their own servers.

        Which means that, by and large, storing any data is a matter of asking for it. Backups, data recovery, 24/7 uptime — this is all stuff they’re already paying for.

        Of all the technical challenges AirBnB might face, ‘data storage’ is not going to be one of them. (Especially since data like this? It’s text. Tiny to begin with, highly compressible. If everyone in America tried to book AirBnB stuff 10 times a day, the data generated would be a rounding error when it came time to do their daily DB snapshots.Report