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Airbnb hosts discriminate against black guests based on names, study suggests

Airbnb guests with stereotypically "black-sounding" names have a harder time booking a reservation than their white counterparts, a working paper from Harvard Business School researchers suggests.

6,400 messages sent from fake profiles

Using data from 6,400 messages sent by fake profiles inquiring about reservations in five cities, the researchers determined that Airbnb guests — who, under the company's system, are approved by hosts — were more likely to have their booking approved if they had names more closely associated with white people. Controlling for other factors, the guests with stereotypically white names received positive responses about 50 percent of the time, compared with 42 percent for their black counterparts.

The names were first drawn from a list of names given to babies born in Massachusetts between 1974 and 1979. Those names were then given out in a survey for people to categorize as "white" or "African American." In the end, for example, a "white" name tested in the study was "Meredith O'Brien," while a "black" name tested was "Rasheed Jackson."

"We are committed to making Airbnb one of the most open, trusted, diverse, transparent communities in the world," an Airbnb spokesperson said in a statement. "We recognize that bias and discrimination are significant challenges, and we welcome the opportunity to work with anyone that can help us reduce potential discrimination in the Airbnb community. We are in touch with the authors of this study and we look forward to a continuing dialogue with them."

Similar effects have been found with studies in other contexts. But as the researchers point out in the paper, there are other, competing platforms, such as Expedia and Priceline, which don't require a guest to submit a name and thus don't have the same problems with discrimination. "Due to their design, these platforms would necessarily have zero race gap under our experiment because they do not allow hotels to decide whether to accept a prospective guest based on the guest's name," the researchers write.

Previously, the researchers ran a study that suggested nonblack Airbnb hosts were able to charge about 12 percent more than their black counterparts.

Update 3:15PM ET: Includes comment from Airbnb spokesperson.