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Can the Sharing Economy Root Out Racism?

The algorithms that power the online marketplace just reflect the racial discrimination found in society itself.
Airbnb hosts in New York City rally against the city's new law limiting home sharing.
Airbnb hosts in New York City rally against the city's new law limiting home sharing.Frank Franklin II/AP

Back in September, the online crib-sharing platform Airbnb confessed that it has been slow to address complaints of discrimination against black and Latino would-be renters and released a slate of new policies to remedy the problem. These remedies haven’t been in place long enough to determine whether they are up to the task. However, Boston University economist Ray Fisman and Harvard University business professor Michael Luca have identified one area where Airbnb’s anti-discrimination proposals fall short: the collection and disclosure of data on the race and gender of its users.

Writing for the December issue of Harvard Business Review, Fisman and Luca say that regularly reporting this kind of demographic data is one “necessary step … toward revealing and confronting any problems” with discrimination. Luca was part of a group of researchers who investigated Airbnb’s racial bias problem by creating 20 fake Airbnb profiles, half of which carried commonly used African-American names while the other half used common white names. The fake users contacted roughly 6,400 hosts about their rental properties. Here’s how that turned out: