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MITCHELL: NAACP sells black people short with Airbnb deal

The NAACP's Derrick Johnson touted the organization's "groundbreaking partnership with Airbnb." But the deal also gives cover to a company that's under fire over accusations of discrimination. | USA Today Network

The NAACP missed the mark with its partnership with Airbnb.

The deal is being touted as a “landmark national agreement” that would help people of color use their homes to earn extra income. But it also gives cover to a company that’s under fire over accusations of discrimination.

African-American users of Airbnb have turned to social media to complain that hosts who initially rejected them later accepted them when they changed their profiles to a white person.

A study by a Harvard Business School professor found that black users were 16 percent less likely to be accepted by Airbnb hosts than people with identical profiles but white-sounding names.

Even more disconcerting, the study found that African-Americans, white hosts, male and female hosts all discriminate against African-American guests. And this happens among experienced hosts, in “high- and low-priced units” and in “diverse and homogeneous neighborhoods,” the study found.

This is the kind of blatant civil rights violation one would expect the country’s oldest civil rights organization to speak out loudly against.


But there was no mention of the discrimination complaints that have tarnished the popular home-sharing company in Thursday’s announcement.

“For too long, black people and other communities of color have faced barriers to access new technology and innovations,” Derrick Johnson, interim president and CEO of the NAACP, said in the written statement. “This groundbreaking partnership with Airbnb will help bring new jobs and economic opportunities to our communities.

“Airbnb’s commitment to that goal is a tremendous step in the right direction for Silicon Valley to open its doors to African-Americans and other communities.”

Under the agreement, Airbnb agreed to give NAACP “20 percent of the earnings it receives as a result of these new community outreach efforts with the NAACP.

That could turn out to be substantial. Consider, for instance, that there are 770 active Airbnb listings on the South Side, where hosts have earned a combined $3.7 million. The typical South Side host makes $2,400 a year, according to a spokesman for the company.

As expected, the most active hosts on the South Side are in Hyde Park (124), followed by Kenwood (63) and Grand Boulevard (50).

I’m all for the NAACP bringing new jobs to communities of color. But the owners of Airbnb didn’t wake up one morning and decide to spread the wealth to predominantly black neighborhoods.

In 2016, the company was slammed with a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by an African-American man who said that, when he tried to rent a room in Philadelphia using Airbnb, the host rejected him because of race. Gregory Selden’s experience sparked the #AirbnbWhileBlackhash-tag on social media.

In the latest incident that’s been getting attention, an Asian American woman said a host near a resort in the Los Angeles area told her in an email: “I wouldn’t rent to u if you were the last person on earth.”

Airbnb has been able to avoid a class-action lawsuit because the site’s “terms of service” contains an arbitration clause and class-action waiver.

Among the changes that Airbnb has made to address the racism allegations, it’s requiring users to commit not to discriminate because of “race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age.”

But because Airbnb was late in responding to the complaints about racial bias, it left a crack for black enterpreneurs to jump into the lucrative home-sharing business.

Two such companies — Noirbnb.com and Innclusive.com — got lots of love from African-American websites like HuffPost’s “Black Voices,” and “The Root.”

If the NAACP wanted to partner with the home-sharing industry, it should have partnered with these young entrepreneurs.

What troubles me most, though, is that the NAACP’s “landmark” agreement ignores Chicago’s entrenched segregation.

Frankly, the only people who are going to want to stay in a lot of neighborhoods on the South Side are family members in town for a funeral or a family reunion.

When on vacation, African-Americans want to be near the Mag Mile, Millennium Park and the city’s latest tourist attraction, Riverwalk, just like other tourists.

As Airbnb’s own survey shows, guests spend 50 percent of their money in the neighborhoods in which they are staying.

When you get away from Hyde Park, Bronzeville, South Loop and Beverly, most of the South Side is a desert as far as eat-in restaurants and shopping is concerned.

The NAACP partnership might look good on paper. But it’s really just smoke and mirrors.