Airbnb — a company in the throes of a public crisis over racial discrimination — will co-host a press event and panel on civil rights with BET at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday morning, as it seeks to address an onslaught of criticism (and a lawsuit) charging that it has done too little to address housing discrimination on its platform.
The event is intended to honor the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party during the 1964 Democratic National Convention, when it opposed the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi. It features Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, who recently portrayed civil rights era L.B.J. for HBO. It follows a presentation of new polling data “regarding the 2016 Presidential race and the sharing economy” from Uber strategy adviser (and former Obama administration campaign boss) David Plouffe, and Airbnb policy head (and former Clinton aide) Chris Lehane.
Airbnb told BuzzFeed News the idea of co-hosting an event with BET has been in the works for seven months. A spokesperson for BET said “there is a lot of synergy between both companies” and said they’ve been discussing the idea since 2012. It’s opportune timing.
The media event comes just days after the company hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to help it address discrimination on its platform, and follows weeks of turmoil. In May, a black man who says Airbnb violated the Fair Housing Act by failing to protect him from discrimination filed a class action lawsuit. Since then, a group of senators cited discrimination among the reasons the FTC should investigate Airbnb. The issue also raised the ire of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In early June, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said the company had zero tolerance for racism on its platform. Airbnb has been undergoing an internal review of its discrimination track record since the same month. In early July, Chesky admitted the company had been slow to address and correct the issue. It now says it’s working to “require everyone who uses our platform to read and certify that they will follow this policy."
Over the weekend, the company’s Instagram account showcased a photography exhibit, currently hanging in the company’s San Francisco headquarters, that features 300 portraits of Airbnb employees supporting Black Lives Matter. The caption on the image says the exhibit produced “meaningful discussions and shared moments of vulnerability.”
“Hopefully, they’re genuinely interested in solving this problem,” former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich told BuzzFeed News on Monday, “either because they sense it’s going to be a big legal cost in the future, or because they think they have some social responsibility to do it.”
However, despite the recent internal review and announcements regarding its policies, Airbnb has yet to make any changes to its platform. Hosts can still sign up without reviewing or being made aware of the company’s policies on housing discrimination.
Slack’s head of engineering, Leslie Miley — who left his job at Twitter and criticized the company for failing to aggressively handle its harassment problem — said, while he hopes the moves are genuine, there’s “definitely a PR aspect” to Airbnb’s decision to host a DNC event with BET.
“So many companies over the decades have used these moments in history, not only to do the right thing, but also to their business advantage,” Miley told BuzzFeed News.
Miley said he’d also like to see the company’s discrimination policy more prominently featured on Airbnb’s website. “If you have this problem, and you want to address the problem, shouldn’t that be a splash screen on your homepage?” he asked.
The panel discussion will feature Reverend Ed King, a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s 1964 attempt to overthrow segregationist establishment politicians. King co-wrote a book about that experience, Behind The Scenes Of Freedom Summer, with Trent Brown, an associate professor of American studies.
Brown says he sees Airbnb’s plans for the DNC as a combination of genuine interest and public relations.
“Airbnb is doing what companies do. They’re in Philadelphia to try to lobby a bit, to protect their interests, and shore up their image,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Whether they’re trying to polish their image or do the right thing, I don’t know, but for a company those interests are always both in play.”
As Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky reminded the world via Twitter on Sunday, the Democratic National Convention is where Airbnb got its start. When Barack Obama was wrapping up the nomination in 2008, Chesky and his co-founders were busy trying to convince convention goers to stay on air beds in people’s homes.
Eight years later, Airbnb is still profiting off of the high demand for accommodations associated with political conventions. And once again, it’s using this unique moment of national political spectacle as a platform to shape the story it tells about itself.