You learn a lot about the character of an organization when things go wrong. For the team at Airbnb, hearing the outcry from African American travelers who were denied lodging because of discrimination was one of these moments. I know, because I met with them in San Francisco in early June to discuss this challenge. Everyone I spoke with, including CEO Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s legal, engineering and policy team, and the leadership of the Black
employees group, made clear that they are willing to do all they can to tackle this problem. What they said to me in private matches what they’ve said in public: Airbnb has zero tolerance for bias or racial discrimination.
After spending more than four decades fighting for equality at the ACLU and in other organizations, I’ve seen companies pay lip service to these issues before. But Airbnb leaders have shown a willingness to be transparent and have expressed to me a sincere desire to ensure that its policies, technology and platform are not facilitating discrimination. Towards that end, Airbnb has hired me to help them lead a 90-day review process to address discrimination issues. In working with them, I plan to hold them accountable.
I will begin that process by spending the summer meeting with technology experts, civil rights leaders, housing advocates and members of the Airbnb community to solicit their ideas. Those conversations will be guided by three principles and objectives.
The first is identifying and fixing structural problems with the platform. Airbnb should be less focused on fixing one-off examples of individual discrimination than on understanding how the platform and underlying technology itself may contribute to possible systemic problems. Airbnb has already tapped its best engineers and product team members to lead this effort, and I’m excited to work with them to make real improvements.
The second step is to improve its processes so it can rapidly identify racial discrimination and deal with these matters quickly and decisively. That includes putting in policies and processes that will set the model for the industry and which will reflect the company’s commitment to fighting discrimination and acting quickly if something goes wrong. It will be important for Airbnb, like any company committed to taking on this issue, to continually educate staff and community so that the entire community understand these rules and processes so that responses are quick and appropriate.
Finally, Airbnb must build broader and enduring relationships with diverse travel, civil rights, grass roots, small business, social science and educational institutions. The brilliant staff at Airbnb cannot make its way in this increasingly diverse world, unless they are a more diverse company and are active in communities that will support them in this effort. One meeting in the middle of a crisis won’t do it. They need relationships with experts that last. Discrimination in the sharing economy is not going away anytime soon, and if Airbnb wants to be in the forefront of tackling this problem it will be mutually beneficial to be a part of a sustained dialogue with individuals and organizations.
These steps are just beginning. Airbnb understands that there’s no single solution to the problem of deeply entrenched biases and discrimination in the travel industry or in our society as a whole. It will need to engage in an enduring effort to ensure that every single member of its community is treated equally. At its core, Airbnb is about helping people feel like they can belong anywhere, no matter who they are, what they look like, or where they’re from. They take that mission very seriously, and I will do whatever I can to help them to get it right.
Laura W. Murphy recently retired as director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office after 17 years. She was also Washington, DC’s director of tourism under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly in the 1990’s.