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: ‘Scapegoating minority groups can shape markets’: Asian-American Airbnb hosts saw a marked decline in bookings during the pandemic

Asian Americans have been the target of racist abuse and physical assaults since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but their ability to make money as hosts on the online house-sharing platform Airbnb has also been significantly impacted.

That’s according to a new working paper by economists at Harvard Business School, the Département Sciences Économiques et Sociales at Télécom Paris, a public college that specializes in higher education and engineering, and Université Paris Dauphine-PSL. 

“After January 2020, hosts with distinctively Asian names experienced a 12% decline in guests as proxied by reviews, relative to hosts with White-sounding names,” researchers Michael Luca, Michelangelo Rossi and Elizaveta Pronkina wrote in their paper. 

A rise in anti-Asian sentiment has translated to discrimination in economic activity, they said, “highlighting the ways in which scapegoating minority groups can shape markets.” “Our results also point to the role of platform design choices in enabling discrimination,” the authors added.

The working paper, which was distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research on Monday, adjusted for hosts who may have been reluctant to accept guests, and repeated their analysis — based on booking frequency and reviews — on “instant booking” options.

“We do not observe spikes in discrimination against Black or Hispanic hosts, relative to pre-pandemic levels, which further suggests that the results reflect the anti-Asian discrimination that increased during the pandemic,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

The company previously announced research into alleged discrimination on the site — based in part on profile photos and people’s names — early in the pandemic in an effort to understand and address such bias.

“‘We do not observe spikes in discrimination against Black or Hispanic hosts, relative to pre-pandemic levels.’”

— working paper on Asian-American Airbnb hosts

“We condemn all forms of discrimination and are committed to fighting it proactively,” an Airbnb spokesperson told MarketWatch in a statement. “In 2020, we launched Project Lighthouse, a groundbreaking initiative aimed to uncover and measure discrimination when booking or hosting on Airbnb so that we can continue to develop strategies to combat it.”

“We are reviewing this research seriously to understand its basis,” the spokesperson added. “Although the researchers did not contact us about their report, we plan to reach out to them to obtain any further information.”

The focus on Wuhan, the Central Chinese city where the coronavirus is believed to have originated in late 2019, and speculation that it began in a food market there, led to a rise in reports of racism against people of Asian descent and the sharing of xenophobic memes online.

Anti-Asian hate crimes and bias incidents have risen during the pandemic. Data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, showed a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes between 2020 and 2021, NBC News reported. 

Earlier this year, a nationwide survey of more than 2,400 Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women found that they experienced racist incidents most commonly in restaurants and stores (47%), and those incidents mostly involved strangers (53%).

“Discrimination, harassment, and violence against AAPI women — stemming from a long history of anti-AAPI sentiment and misogyny — are still rampant in society, occurring every day in public spaces, at schools and businesses, and even in our own neighborhoods,” that report said.

Meanwhile, the authors of the report on Airbnb say hiding the full names and photos of hosts would help mitigate against bias. “If Airbnb were to only show a host’s name after a booking is made, there would be less scope for discrimination in the booking decision,” they added.

In a similar move aimed at combating discrimination against Black users on the platform, Airbnb announced in late 2021 that hosts in Oregon would see only a prospective guest’s initials until after a booking was confirmed. The new policy, which went into effect Jan. 31 and will remain in place at least two years, came from the settlement of a lawsuit that alleged the site allowed hosts to discriminate on the basis of race.

“As part of our ongoing work, we will take any learnings from this process and use them to inform future efforts to fight bias,” the company said at the time.

(Meera Jagannathan contributed to this report.)

Read next: One year after the Atlanta spa shootings, there’s increased awareness of anti-Asian hate crimes — but not enough action

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