Airbnb enlists Eric Holder to address racial discrimination

Eric Holder has a new gig. The former U.S. attorney general, whose legacy was defined by efforts to increase civil rights protections, has been hired by the popular hospitality site Airbnb to help them draft anti-discrimination policies. CEO Brian Chesky made the announcement in a blog posted to the company’s website.

“We understand that we have an obligation to be honest about our own shortcomings, and do more to get our house in order,” Chesky wrote. “That’s why we’ve been talking more openly about discrimination and bias on our platform, and are currently engaged in a process to prevent it.”

The hire comes amid criticism over Airbnb’s approach to allegations of racial discrimination. The Congressional Black Caucus last month sent a letter to Chesky, urging the CEO to do more to address racism within the company’s community of users.  The company is also facing a lawsuit by an African-American user who says a Philadelphia host rejected his request to rent, claiming the unit was unavailable. The host, identified only as Paul, approved two white guests (both fake profiles) later that same day. The lawsuit claims that 25-year-old Gregory Selden’s appeals to Airbnb fell “on deaf ear.”  The case is awaiting class action status as potentially thousands more minorities voice similar complaints of civil rights violations that were ignored by Airbnb.

NPR’s Shankar Vedantam first reported on the hidden bias of Airbnb hosts, followed up online by the Code Switch team with the hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack. Users of color shared experiences of discrimination while using the home-sharing site, most falling in line with Selden’s accusation of hosts refusing to rent to guests of color, only to accept requests from whites shortly thereafter. Some users also reported blatant harassment and use of racial slurs by hosts. Many users tweeted that their attempts to inform the San Francisco-based company were ignored.

Airbnb’s hiring of Eric Holder, who served the U.S. Department of Justice during most of the Obama administration, is part of a larger initiative to address racial bias. In the blog post, Chesky said the company has also met with civil rights leaders and housing discrimination experts, and are in the process of providing training on unconscious bias for Airbnb hosts.

In response to discrimination complaints, several competitor sites have emerged, offering room rentals around the world specifically for travelers of color.

“I’m looking forward to working with Airbnb to develop and implement a world-class anti-discrimination policy,” Holder said in a statement released by the company. “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.”

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