AirBnb still grapples with racism, but shows the ongoing issue of the profiling of Black people.
Filmmaker Donisha Prendergast and her three friends, two of whom are Black (Kells Fyffee Marshall and Komi-Oluwa Olafimihan), were loading their luggage into their car after staying two days at an AirBnb house rental in Rialto, a modest-sized Los Angeles suburb located in San Bernardino county.
As they were driving out of the enclave, police officers stopped, then detained them on suspicion of burglarizing the home that they just left.
An Instagram post by Marshall provided details of the account. The film director said that seven police cars swarmed around them. Eventually, the group was detained on suspicion of burglarizing the home.
The officers came out of their cars demanding us to put our hands in the air. They informed us that there was also a helicopter tracking us. They locked down the neighborhood and had us standing in the street.
According to Marshall, while the cadre of filmmakers attempted to explain to the officers that they were AirBnB guests and provide receipts, the Sergeant on duty accused them of lying. Marshall said that situation escalated soon thereafter.
In a press release, Rialto Police Department (RPD) provided a synopsis that stated that the “reporting party identified several people taking suitcases from the residence and loading into a vehicle that was backed into the driveway.” The neighbor “did not recognize the vehicle or the people as neighbors, or the homeowner.”
Marshall wrote that the police informed them that the neighbor, an elderly white woman, became suspicious when they did not wave back at her.
After 45 minutes, the friends were released.
The group had just finished participating in the Kaya Fest, a weekend music festival highlighting reggae artists and musicians influenced by the Jamaican cultural genre.
Two days before the incident, Prendergast, who is the granddaughter of reggae music icon, Bob Marley, posted a message on Instagram that thanked the production teams and planners of the event.
Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights
CBS News Los Angeles spoke to the AirBnb host, Marie Rodriguez, who said that her neighbor was being cautious because there were recent property crimes in the area. Rodriguez had not registered her residence for a license in Rialto. RPD said that they did not know that Rialto was a city where AirBnb operated.
On April 30, the three Black AirBnB renters served RPD with a notice of a pending lawsuit.
On Monday, Laura W. Murphy, senior advisor at AirBnb and the company’s director of national partnerships, Janaye Ingram, sent a letter to the Rialto Mayor and Interim Chief of Police:
We are deeply disturbed by the public reports suggesting that the police department’s response was dictated by the guests’ race. As African-American women who have seen the inequitable treatment of people of color, we know that these kinds of incidents are often rooted in implicit and explicit bias. They are hurtful, discriminatory, traumatic and must end.
For Rodriguez, the guests are pulling their race cards. “They’re latching on to this whole racism thing, because they’re black,” Rodriguez, told CBS News Los Angeles. “This is a diverse neighborhood.”
According to the US Census, the area is predominantly white (62.3) and Hispanic or Latino (74.1). Blacks make up 12.4 percent and Asians are 2.4 percent.
In the past, the Los Angeles Times reported that RPD received multiple companies of “rampant racism and sexism.”
Prendergast posted about the incident too:
I’m sad and irritated to see that fear is still the first place police officers go in their pursuit to serve and protect, to the point that protocol supersedes their ability to have discernment. Many have suffered and died in moments like these. That’s a crazy reality check.
AirBnb’s Race Problem
The detained AirBnb guests is the latest debacle of Black customers being arrested upon the complaints or suspicions of whites. Several weeks ago, two African-American men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks when a manager asked them to leave the premises for not purchasing coffee.
Shortly after, a woman named Chikesia Clemmons was thrown to the floor and arrested by Alabama police officers at a Waffle House, when an employee called police after Clemmons asked for the company’s corporate number to complain about a 50 cent charge for plastic cutlery.
In the past, AirBnb has come under fire for various incidents involving issues around racism. A company that allows users to privately rent out their quarters via a digital app, is still attempting to figure out ways to reduce encounters.
In 2017, a host denied an Asian renter lease out her cabin in Big Bear, Calif. This issue persists in other countries too. In March, a renter in Edinburgh, Scotland was banned after they posed “please don’t book if you are Asian ,” in an advertisement on the company’s website. Most of the reported offenses via the news have been perpetrated by white hosts.
Last July, AirBnb teamed up with NAACP in an effort to promote more communities of color to use the app as hosts and guests.
“Our fastest-growing communities across major US cities are in communities of color and we’ve seen how home sharing is an economic lifeline for families,” Belinda Johnson, Airbnb’s chief business affairs officer, said in a statement on the revenue sharing deal.
AirBnb’s efforts come too late for some former users. Rohan Gilkes, the founder of Innclusive, a peer-to-peer accommodations website, launched a company that encourages hosts of color and the accommodation of non-white guests. Gilkes’ request to book an Idaho rental was denied twice by an AirBnb host, but approved after Gilkes’ white friend asked.
When Gilkes complained to an AirBnB representative, he said in an interview with Splinter News that they “ didn’t do anything other than distance themselves from the possibility that race factored into why I was declined.”
Gilkes posted his account of events on social media and received over 2,000 emails, overnight. His response was Innclusive. Though much smaller than AirBnB, the million-dollar company grows.
The denial of service, or racializing guests is reminiscent of a segregated US. It was so difficult to find proper room and board during Jim Crow that The Negro Travelers’ Green Book was created by a NYC mailman named Victor Hugo Green in the 1940s.
The guide helped Black travelers navigate racist hotels, eateries, even sundown towns and municipalities with a de facto ordinance that Blacks had to leave before nightfall or else be terrorized.
People like Gilkes are beginning to curate information networks and businesses where diversity, inclusion, and in particular, hospitality for Blacks who oftentimes bear the brunt of these encounters.
Feature photo of Prendergast taken from her Instagram account.