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raceAhead: Is This the End of #Airbnbwhileblack?

Airbnb published an impressive 32-page report Thursday, outlining its plan to eliminate bias on its platform and to diversify its employees. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start and a must read. But more than that, it offers a 21st century template for combatting bias both online and in real life.

Laura Murphy, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington D.C. Legislative Office who put together the report, was hired by Airbnb to review the discrimination charges leveled by African American users (many shared under the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack). She proposed a comprehensive series of reforms, now adopted by the company.

Some notable ones: all hosts must agree to a new anti-discrimination pledge, an expanded ‘instant book’ program which allows guests to make reservations without host pre-approval, improved reporting systems for aggrieved customers, and new technology that would block the system’s calendar for dates that were declined by a host, to make sure those dates aren’t later booked by someone of a different race. And although photos are not disappearing altogether, a disappointment to some, they will be made less prominent. (Fortune published a synopsis here.)

Here’s where things get really interesting for the raceAhead crowd.

The company has created a permanent, full-time, team of engineers, data scientists, researchers and designers whose only purpose is to “advance inclusion and root out bias.”

Wrote Murphy, “I know of no other technology company that has created such a team as a permanent part of its structure. Just as teams of lawyers were assembled to fight discrimination in the mid-20th century, it is my hope that 21st-century engineers will do their part to help eliminate bias and set an example for other technology startups and companies in the sharing economy to do the same.”

Although it’s debatable whether those teams of 20th century lawyers fully delivered on that lofty promise, the idea that a new batch of thinkers working to hack bias both online and in real life is an exciting one.

But only if they keep sharing what they find. Claudia Marmolejo, the co-chair of the Latino Employee Networking Group for Morgan Stanley, recently told me that she regularly meets with her peers at other companies to formally share best practices. “This includes our competitors,” she said. “I know that surprises some people, but that’s how seriously we take this.” The Airbnb team has a tremendous opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the broader ecosystem if they are allowed to work collaboratively with like-minded friends across enemy lines.

Bottom line: They need to share what they’re learning early and often.

But perhaps the most poignant part of the report was Murphy’s own brief testimony, which helped explain the commitment she brought to her task:

“Finally, as an African American woman, I grew up understanding the sting of bias. My mother, who was born in New England, was terrified of travel in the southern United States. Even outside of the South, my family, like most black families, often had difficulty booking hotel rooms when traveling in the United States, even when it was clear that we had the means to do so. We knew that we were being turned down at hotels—even those with vacancies—merely because they did not want black customers. My parents told me stories about the Green Book and how black families had to stay with other black families because Jim Crow laws permitted most hotels and motels to deny accommodations to black travelers.”

 

 

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Quote

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