Why Airbnb Shouldn’t Address Its Racism Problem

Note: This story originally appeared on my blog on September 8, 2016.

On January 19th of next year, I plan to be in Washington, DC. Reason one: it will be my fortieth birthday. Reason two: it will be the day before the 45th President of the United States gets sworn into office. That means that I will either be celebrating Hillary Clinton’s historic win or be lobbing eggs at Donald Trump’s limo along with all the other ape-shit protesters.

Because I am not rich (or even middle-class), I cannot afford to book a hotel room in Washington, DC, a room that would be even more expensive than usual due to pre-inaugural price gouging. So I plan to rent a room via Airbnb. Imagine my consternation when I discovered that Airbnb plans to deal with persistent complaints about racial discrimination from room seekers by de-emphasizing the race of the room seekers on their online profiles.

This is one of those policies, which sounding good on paper, can lead up to unpleasant unintended consequences for the very people the policy change was designed to protect. De-emphasizing the racial identity of room seekers on their profile does not eliminate racism from the site. If anything, it more or less guarantees that the people of color who seek accomodation on the site will encounter racists.

Remember the 2001 movie Rat Race in which a Jewish family on a road trip stop off at the “Barbie Museum”, not knowing that the “Barbie” in question wasn’t the plastic doll but Klaus Barbie, the notorious Nazi? What would happen in real life if an unsuspecting Jewish Airbnber turned up at a Neo-Nazi’s house? Or if a Black Lives Matter protester attempted to rent a room from someone belonging to White Lives Matter? Or if a Mexican-American accepted accomodations from a border-patrolling Minuteman? Or if a Muslim showed up at a Trump supporter’s home? Not only will Airbnb’s new race-neutral policy result in a more than a few cringe-worthy encounters, the policy could put people of color into situations which culminate in racist abuse or even violence.

And, as ass-backwards as racism is, people are allowed to feel racial animus and they are allowed to act on that animus by banning unwelcome individuals from their homes; anti-discrimination laws only apply to public facilities. Airbnb’s attempt to interfere with the exercise of that right won’t help anything and may even open the company up to litigation.

A better policy would actually allow people to discriminate on basis of race — openly and for a steep, but not prohibitively high, fee. People with racial preferences would be segregated to a certain spot on the Airbnb site. Anyone who attempts to circumvent the rules — by not paying the fee or posting a discriminatory ad in the non-racist section — would be quickly banned from the site.

Yes, a policy like this would reduce the number of accomodations available to people of color but it would guarantee that people of color who use the site only encounter people who don’t give a crap about their race.

Given the circumstances, the only way for Airbnb to ensure equal treatment of all its users, is to acknowledge the sad fact that some people aren’t capable of providing it.