In May, Rohan Gilkes wrote a post on Medium about being cancelled on by a racist Airbnb host. His experience served as a focal point for reportedly widespread discrimination practiced by Airbnb hosts, giving rise to the hashtag #airbnbwhileblack.
Of course, “Airbnb wasn’t the one who discriminated; it was the homeowner who exhibited ugly behavior,” as Henry Harteveldt, the founder of a travel research group, told the New York Times last month in an article on the subject. “It does show Airbnb didn’t think to include a stated policy or training about nondiscrimination.”
To craft that policy and stand for Airbnb's commitment to it, the company has hired a lawyer and scholar who is about as prominent as humanly possible. "We are honored that former US Attorney General Eric Holder has agreed to join our team to help craft a world-class anti-discrimination policy," Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote in a blog post today. "Holder will be working with John Relman, a leading civil rights attorney and national expert on fair housing and public accommodation issues. While we have a policy that prohibits discrimination, we want this policy to be stronger. And we will require everyone who uses our platform to read and certify that they will follow this policy."
Holder, who served as the 82nd US Attorney General from 2008 to 2015, was the first African American to hold that position. Before that, he was a US Attorney and then a Superior Court Judge in the District of Columbia. He left his post as AG for personal reasons and returned to private practice.
"I’m looking forward to working with Airbnb to develop and implement a world-class anti-discrimination policy," he said in a statement according to Business Insider. "Airbnb is committed to building a community where everyone can belong, no matter who they are or what they look like. I'm eager to help them craft policies that will be the model for companies who share Airbnb's commitment to diversity and inclusion."
The Times noted last month that Airbnb had hired former ACLU Washington legislative offie head Laura Murphy as an outside advisor with regard to discrimination. In the past, Airbnb's standard class-action waiver has been at issue, a document that forces users of the platform to waive their right to sue or join a class-action suit in order to avail themselves of Airbnb's services. “Class-action cases have been the only effective way to prove and remedy systemic discrimination because you can’t prove a pattern of behavior with individually filed cases,” Joanne Doroshow of New York Law School told the paper.
Airbnb relies on its polite, friendly "home-sharing" image to maintain and grow its business. Whereas customers have come to trust hotels, especially chains, to be open and fair in their practices, Airbnb could be torpedoed by allegations that the company tolerates racism on the part of its hosts.
"Over the last month, I have been reflecting on why we have been slow to address these problems," Chesky wrote, adding that while he and his cofounders started Airbnb with the "best of intentions... we weren’t fully conscious of this issue when we designed the platform. After speaking to many of you, I have learned that there have at times been a lack of urgency to work on this, and we need to rectify that immediately."