Field Experiment Finds Racial Discrimination Again, this time in Airbnb
Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca, and Dan Svirsky of the Harvard Business School are the latest researchers to document that yes, racial discrimination in the United States of America is real and that, no, it has not gone away.
Field experiments (also known as “audit studies”) are a clever method of research in which either actual people or fictional applications are put together in pairs. Each member of the pair has the same attributes as the other and is coached to act in the same way as the other. There’s just one crucial exception to this rule: members of the pair differ according to one social characteristic. If research send matched pairs out into the world over and over and over again, and they’re the same except for one characteristic, and they’re treated differently based on what that characteristic is, then researchers have documented the existence of discrimination.
For their field experiment, Edelman, Luca, and Svirsky sent out fictional electronic applications using the service Airbnb, as people looking to stay as a paying guest on a property. Because the applications were fictional, they could be set as equivalent in all respects except one: the applicant’s name. Names were chosen that have been consistently identified in previous studies and in their own survey as representing a the identity of either a white person (ex. “Allison Sullivan”) or a black person (ex. “Laskisha Jones”). The question of the experiment was, would equivalent applications be treated differently depending on whether the applicant’s name sounded white or sounded black?
To get right to the point, the answer is YES. The Airbnb applications with black-sounding names were rejected by property owners 8% more often than the Airbnb applications with white-sounding names. This difference remained the same regardless of whether applicants were given the names of men or the names of women.
This is racial discrimination, and it exists in America. An 8% difference in treatment may not seem like much, but add it up in similar interactions with discrimination that have been documented and that occur every day, and you’ll find that white people and black people have very different experiences of what life in America is like.