Race and the Economy: A Structural Problem (Episode 66)

Date: 21 Feb 2019 | posted in: Building Local Power, Podcast, Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Host Stacy Mitchell speaks with Maurice BP-Weeks, co-director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE). After spending years as a community organizer, Maurice now works with community organizations on campaigns that fight wealth destruction in communities of color. Stacy and Maurice talk about ACRE’s work at the intersection of racial justice and Wall Street accountability. They also discuss:

 

  • How our current economic structure is built on extracting wealth from people of color. 
  • How Wall Street preys on public budgets to further extract wealth from Black and brown folks and how cities can take back control of their finances and bank differently. 
  • ACRE’s recent report on Amazon’s selective policing of the White supremacist propaganda available on their platform and its implications. 
  • Maurice’s eye opening experience working with Black and brown families to save their homes during the foreclosure crisis.
  • Reasons to be hopeful about the future of the economy, including more public discourse about bold new ideas that can restructure the economy in big ways.

 

Most everything that we identify as economic justice problems for Black and brown folks can find their roots in this wealth extraction model, and therefore if we’re going to change them, we really have to go after the entities and the forces and the messages and everything that drive that model forward.

Stacy Mitchell: Hello everyone, and welcome to Building Local Power. I’m Stacey Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today on the show, we have Maurice BP-Weeks, who is the co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy, also known as ACRE. Maurice also works with community organizations and labor unions on campaigns that go on the offensive against Wall Street to beat back their destruction of communities of color. Maurice, it’s so nice to have you on the show.
Maurice BP-Weeks: It’s a pleasure to be on. Thank you, Stacy.
Stacy Mitchell: I want to start, ACRE is a research organization and a campaign hub. You work at the intersection of racial justice and Wall Street accountability. What is lurking at that intersection?
Maurice BP-Weeks: Ooh, so much is lurking at that intersection. It might be helpful to just say a bit of how ACRE was started because I think that might answer the questions. I come to ACRE from years of doing community organizing, most notably during the foreclosure crisis in California, and my co-director comes from doing years of research at a labor union around that same period of time. I think we’ve both shared this analysis that if the way that organizations then and even now, I’ve talked about economic justice work, the way that race has been incorporated in it has been really through the frame of dispirit impact. I remember saying at press conferences and putting in materials like, “And the foreclosure crisis disparately impacts black and brown folks,” or something like that.

While that is true, I mean I think all your listeners probably know that that’s obviously true, it also doesn’t really quite tell the full story of intentionality and actual function and how the economy is working. So, it’s more than just dispirit impact, but the very design and baked into how our economy works is based on wealth extraction. Those are the things that end up causing those dispirit impacts. They’re not just going into a mystery box and then popping out of the other end. So, I think most everything that we experience as what we would identify as economic justice problems for black and brown folks are, can find their roots in this wealth extraction model, and therefore if we’re going to change them, we really have to go after the entities and the forces and the messages and everything that drive that model forward. So, that’s why we started ACRE and that’s the very short answer of what lies at that intersection.

Stacy Mitchell: Yeah. Your analysis really is about something that is structural. That there’s not this dispirit impact that’s an add-on, but is really at the center of structures of power.
Maurice BP-Weeks: That’s right, yeah. It’s an analysis that’s both built on history, so you can go back in the history of this country and the way that wealth has been generated is through extraction, mostly from people of color. And current day, if you look at some of the wealthiest actors in the economy and trace the dollars that are flowing up to them, you can find where they came from in either labor that folks of color are doing and not being paid fair wages or being exploited in other ways, or other predatory schemes that are specifically targeting black and brown folks. Unfortunately, it’s been an analysis that’s rang true for the history of the country, and still it rings true now.
Stacy Mitchell: So, it’s really baked into it at a deep level. What are some of the, I mean in addition to this notion of extraction, you talked about wages and the accumulation up the chain of wealth. You mentioned foreclosure. Certainly in the aftermath of the financial crisis, this systematic wiping out of the wealth of communities of color through that foreclosure crisis. What are some of the other ways that maybe people wouldn’t necessarily see about how Wall Street and the economic structure is really built on this extraction of value from people of color?
Maurice BP-Weeks: I think a lot of folks, particularly folks of color, do see a number of the examples that you listed, like extraction through their housing or through their labor. It might get filtered into polls or public opinion in other ways, but really that’s what they’re expressing. I think probably one of the main ways that is less visible is how Wall Street preys on public budgets in order to extract money from people of color. A lot of the work that ACRE has done through our project, the Refund America project, has been focused on looking at city budgets, looking at predatory schemes that Wall Street has concocted with, inside of city budgets that funnel money out through either fines or fees or penalties or other ways.

You can take an example like the city of Chicago, which had what are called, I won’t get too wonky, but what are called interest rates swaps, which basically right after the foreclosure crisis, Wall Street firms sold this deal to cities like Chicago promising to save them money over time, but after the economy crashed, those deals were actually really really bad. Wall Street knew that this was going to happen and then didn’t let the cities out of the deal. It ends up costing millions and millions of dollars. Of course, when cuts need to happen in our cities because of these deals, they happen in communities of color. So, we hear often that financial arrangements that the city is in are the reasons that we have to cut services to black and brown schools or not provide lighting or parks, or some common decencies to black and brown neighborhoods.

I think that that’s one of the least visible immediately visible ways, but a huge way, that wealth extraction and Wall Street targeting of communities of color happens.

Stacy Mitchell: It’s shocking to me that cities haven’t taken more control of their finances. I actually first knew about ACRE because I’ve known your co-executive director, Saqib Bhatti, for years around our mutual interest in public banks as one way out of this. You know, the idea that cities can create their own municipal banks and use that to finance the things that they need to finance and not be in these really just atrocious relationships with Wall Street, but it’s also just surprising that they don’t stand up to those relationships.

Given what you’ve outlined about the essentially extractive nature of the economic model, how do you present a vision of what the solution looks like? What is the economic model that upends that and changes it into something else?

Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think we can rely on the public through things like public banks for the solutions. The solution I tend towards more democracy and more public control than not as a way to get out of some of the more extractive models. I think one of the things that’s been really promising to see is listeners will probably remember the string of bad press weeks and months that Wells Fargo has recently had, both around their predatory sales goals that they had, and then their computer glitches. It seems like they’ve had a bad press week every week for the past six months or something like that. One of the things that this led to was lots of cities saying, “You know what, we’re no longer going to bank with Wells Fargo. We’re gonna look for other options and ways to pull out of Wells Fargo.”

Many of the cities quickly found out that not only is it really really difficult for them to pull out of Wells Fargo, the other places that they could possibly reasonably go were banks like Bank of America and Citibank, all which have really similar, if not the exact same practices as Wells Fargo. This really from unexpected sources brought the conversation of public bank back up to the top as, “Hey if this industry is just systematically extracting wealth from people, maybe we just need a new model.” I find that kind of thing really promising and really an opening for us as we reach this crisis in these extractive models where we’ll probably see a lot of them failing. I hope that we start to tend towards looking for public options like that more than not.

Stacy Mitchell: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, there’s so many places where that makes sense. We think a lot about ways in which we can use policy at the local and state and ultimately federal level to structure markets and to insist on guardrails around business to better align business decisions with our values as a society.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Absolutely, yeah.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah. We’ve also gotten to know each other a little bit lately over Amazon. You can buy a lot of stuff on Amazon, like millions and millions of products. You can also buy Nazi and white supremacist propaganda for low prices and quick shipping. What is going on there? You guys did a big report last year that was really, I think, made a big splash. Talk a little bit about that.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah. Like you said, Amazon is the marketplace for nearly everything that we buy. That’s true both for millennials like myself, and for white supremacists and Nazis unfortunately. So, ACRE, along with our partners at the Partnership for Working Families, released a report last year that really went through and documented some of the absolutely terrible things that you can buy on Amazon’s website. This report’s about delivering hate, and folks can find it on our website, ACRECampaigns.org. Some of the items, I would give your listeners a trigger warning, some of the items are very disturbing. I mean, from Nazi swastikas or the Nazi insignia, so full Nazi uniforms to violent Confederate texts and literature to all sorts of awful, awful things. These also were pretty clearly against Amazon’s very own policies to not sell hate speech. We went through and documented a great deal of this stuff that we could pretty easily find on the website, and it caused Amazon to take some of it down immediately after the report was released.

Unfortunately even today, you can still find some of the same things on the website. I think one of the things that it points to for … There’s many problems with Amazon’s role in our economy and our country. One of the things it really shows is that Amazon is really too big to deal with problems like this. They have a hard time really managing how to keep these things off of their website. It’s either that or they just really don’t want to. They really don’t want to develop the algorithms or hire the staffing to keep these things off our website. Really both of those are just unacceptable to us. It shouldn’t be listing up some of the worst hate speech in the country on the main platform for buying and selling things in the country.

Stacy Mitchell: Yeah. Yeah. Having talked to a lot of companies that sell on a platform and sort of small businesses and individual sellers, it’s remarkable the degree to which Amazon is constantly surveilling them and how immediately it intervenes when they do something that it doesn’t like or that’s against its interests. For example, as a seller, you’re not allowed to have email communication directly with customers. You have to go through Amazon system. If you communicate certain kinds of things such as your own URL through that communication, Amazon immediately is in touch with you and they might suspend your account and so on.

So you look at that level of kind of minute control over what’s happening on the platform, and then you look at other things, white supremacist propaganda, you look at the counterfeit stuff that’s on the platform, and they don’t seem to have the same ability to police it or they sort of selectively police it. So it’s hard for me not to conclude that they’ve just decided it’s in their interest either because it’s just cheaper to be lazy or that they actually profit off this stuff.

Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah. I think that’s part of the argument that we’re making in the report. It’s really hard to track exactly what the profits Amazon has made from this kind of speech mainly because we can’t really document how much of it is being sold. We just know it’s a good deal, a great lot of it, but we know that they are making some money. Like you said, there are other things that they’ve taken down from their website immediately under the same policies that we think that they should be taking down this hate speech on.

So yeah, I think that it’s right to sort of call into question how Amazon is really enforcing these policies. I think it’s very important to do specifically for Amazon because they are such a large marketplace. They’re kind of the marketplace in the country, and they’re requesting so much from so many of our cities and states. You have to sort of be able to police hate speech if you’re going to be this large and request this much from the public in our view.

Stacy Mitchell: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. You’re listening to Maurice BP-Weeks, Co-Executive Director of The Action Center on Race and the Economy. We’ll be back after a short break, and we’re going to talk with Maurice more about how he got into the work that he does and maybe talk a little bit more about Amazon.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi, everyone. This is Lisa Gonzalez. I edit the Building Local Power podcast and I produce the show along with Hibba Meraay and Zach Freed. I’m just one of a team of people working to bring the show to you twice a month. If you enjoy this podcast, please consider making a donation to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. As you may have noticed, we don’t have any ads on this show, but we do depend on your financial support. Donations not only underwrite this podcast, but they’re an important source of funding for our work and all of the technical assistance and help that we provide to communities across the country. So please take a moment to go to ilsr.org/donate. That’s ilsr.org/donate. If making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can share this podcast with your friends, follow us on social media, and help make other people aware of our resources and the work that we do. Thanks so much for listening. Now, back to the show.
Stacy Mitchell: Maurice, I wanted to ask you a little bit about how you got into this work. I know that you did some organizing work before and have been involved in various campaigns. Tell me about how you were drawn to doing social justice work.
Maurice BP-Weeks: My mom is a schoolteacher and has been really involved in her union since I was a kid basically. Both of my parents really taught sort of the value not just of sort of leftist values, but really that you really do have to fight for equity and fight against injustices. That was sort of so much baked into my history that, even when I was choosing which college to go to, I remember really looking at the activist and organizing values of each school that I went to, what are some of the groups that are on campus that are doing organizing work. So I ended up at school. My alma mater probably wouldn’t like that I said that I probably spent way more time doing organizing work in college than I did doing actual schoolwork in college.
Stacy Mitchell: Right. Where did you go to school?
Maurice BP-Weeks: I went to Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia. After that, I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to work with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment in California, and this was right sort of at the tail end of the foreclosure crisis. So I was thrown into helping black and brown families organize to really save their home. While I was always interested in this work, I think that really deepened my analysis very quickly and brought some experiences right to the forefront for me in a way that they never had before.

I remember, in the many instances where people really did lose their foreclosure fight, them having to move all of their stuff into the ACE office that day because they really had nowhere else to go and this all because of an unjust, totally, in some instances, illegal foreclosure that was happening. So that really deepened my really commitment and how hard I was fighting for things really and deepened my understanding of how terrible things can be because of how the economy is set up. So I cut my teeth doing real community organizing work and now run an organization that does campaigns and research.

One thing that I certainly learned doing organizing is that those two elements are very important. You sort of can’t move forward in broad scale ways unless you have a plan to make some of your organizing work connect to other things, so like a real campaign plan, and the research that shows you really who the main targets that you should be fighting are. So yeah, that’s how I got to what I’m doing.

Stacy Mitchell: That’s great. How are you feeling about where we are right now as you think about the way the economy is structured as an extractive force for black and brown communities, the way in which concentrated power is undermining democracy? I was sort of feeling like there’s a way in which I feel better about where we are because I feel like we’re actually talking about the real thing now in a way that I don’t feel like we were — and I mean we as like the sort of community of social justice organizations, civil society organizations — five or 10 years ago. I feel like we were much more stuck around sort of symptoms and incremental change and kind of “How do we fix this?” It feels like the conversation now is about the real thing. Do you feel like more hopeful or do you lie awake at night and feel like we’re really … This is all going to turn out very badly?
Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah. I feel like I’m … Yeah. There’s sort of a weird back-and-forth mix of the two of those is what I feel. I mean in some ways especially after the 2016 election and the couple of years that have followed, seeing economic justice fights that we had won being peeled away and just not only economic justice fights that we’ve won being peeled away but really the right advancing in their economic policies and theory pretty rapidly and just knowing what that is going to mean for black and brown folks is really troubling to me. That certainly keeps me up at night knowing that things like the CFPB are being gutted and a tax bill that’s just going to funnel more and more money up and things like that are really troubling to me.

Then at the same time, I mean we are right now having a nationwide debate on whether being a billionaire is a moral thing at all which that’s actual an important conversation to have. That money has come from other folks in this country and it is being concentrated in a way that I and thousands, millions of other people think is unjust. That’s an important conversation to have. There are more and more public figures that are sort of picking up that platform of “We need to really restructure the economy in bigger and bolder ways.” One of my favorite new Congress members, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, comes to mind with really proposing huge, big, bold ideas in her freshman term which is incredible. Even candidates that have been around for a while longer and may not have been as critiquing the economy as radically as someone like AOC, we’re seeing some of the messages of critique even seep into their language.

Stacy Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maurice BP-Weeks: So you see these Democratic Party folks who might have been to the center left before saying things like, “Medicare for all,” or, “We need to make sure pharma’s not out of control,” or all these other things they’re talking about really reeling in the nature of the economy and that’s really hopeful to me. That means that we’re, in some ways, we’re heading in the right direction. So yeah, it’s a mix. Some days I feel really good and really inspired and other days I feel like we’re screwed. We need to do a lot more faster, yeah.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah, I know. I feel the same way and of course the climate kind of hanging over everything.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Right.
Stacy Mitchell: You know, it’s interesting. I too feel it’s like AOC and the big proposals and the way that people are like, “No, let’s put big things on the table. Let’s really talk about it and in big structural ways.” What’s been fascinating to me to watch, especially the billionaires thing, how the establishment, how the powers that be, have reacted, the degree to which they’re affronted by this and the way in which politicians and others are sort of discovering that people across the political spectrum want to tax billionaires at a huge rate and think this idea of Medicaid for all sounds like a great idea. There’s really a lot of popular support for those ideas.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Right.
Stacy Mitchell: And how it’s sort of interesting to watch people squirm at Howard Schultz, is that his name, from Starbucks wanting us to refer to the wealthy as people of wealth.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Don’t call him a billionaire, yeah.
Stacy Mitchell: Right. He’s a person of wealth.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Right.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Right. That has been really interesting and it’s sort of indicative of a little bit of a crisis that they are facing too. I mean, I think this is the part of the American Dream, it’s like one day I will be wealthy and I will be a billionaire and that’s kind of been sort of baked into what most Americans think, a good deal of Americans think and believe. So I think it’s probably really disconcerting to see what shifting for people who are of wealth, billionaires like Howard Schultz and other millionaires and people who are power brokers to see the importance of the American Dream fading away and the importance of everyone really being treated fairly and having everything that they need to survive rising up, probably is really disconcerting. I totally understand why he’s nervous about it.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah. I’m surprised that they don’t seem to have any intention of getting out in front of it in any way. I mean, there’s a sort of nervousness but they also seem like Bezos, they seem kind of oblivious to the consequences that this is untenable and it’s gonna come apart in some way. It’s either gonna happen through people organizing and restructuring the system and recovering democracy and creating our vision of an equitable society or it’s gonna hit the rocks in a really nasty way.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah, I imagine that once you get to that level of wealth like a Jeff Bezos there probably aren’t a lot of people around him that are critiquing him very often.
Stacy Mitchell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maurice BP-Weeks: In some ways, I bet it’s a relatively politically lonely place and I mean that in the most negative way possible for them.
Stacy Mitchell: Right.
Maurice BP-Weeks: There’s only people saying that everything that he’s doing and thinking is correct and right and his obliviousness probably comes from the fact that he’s not really paying attention to what other folks are saying that much. And yeah, that’s not gonna work for very long for him I don’t think.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah, it’s true.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah.
Stacy Mitchell: Well, we often end this show by asking for a reading or watching or listening recommendation or two or three so what would you recommend for listeners?
Maurice BP-Weeks: Sure, yeah, so my stash actually as you may imagine for a staff of researchers, we’re a staff of nerds, we do a lot of reading and listening to things relating to the economy, we have a select channel that’s dedicated to it. So I will highlight some that I recently dropped onto the select channel that I think are really interesting. I’m doing a lot of reading on sort of historical roots of some economic financialization practices. So one is a book Bankers and Empire. The short review is that it’s about Wall Street practicing some of their current practices on the Caribbean in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Professor Peter James Hudson. I just thought it was really, really good and I had no idea about any of it.
Stacy Mitchell: Just to give us some examples of those kinds of practices or that sort of parallels to what you see now?
Maurice BP-Weeks: Yes. Some of the sort of core banking fees and trade regulations and other stuff that really we think of as the core practices of banks before they were sort of tried and practiced here in the U.S. There were things that banks did in the Caribbean. I mean, it’s all based on sort of debt, which is ACRE’s main sort of focus often. I don’t want to blow some of the examples because they’re really, really good.
Stacy Mitchell: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Maurice BP-Weeks: And really I want people to have their minds’ blown.
Stacy Mitchell: That’s great. So that’s Banking and Empire.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah, Bankers and Empire, yeah by Peter James Hudson. And then the other book that I’ll recommend is another book called Bankers and Bolsheviks. So it’s about international finance during the Russian Revolution. It’s a part of the world that I don’t really good knowledge about, how finance worked during that period of time. I just started reading it. People can read along with me and the author is Hassan Malik. Other people on our staff are reading Rebel Cities by David Harvey and Crashed, which is about the 10 years after the economy and lots of other stuff. I wish I could add all of your listeners to our slack channel because there’s a lot of stuff in there.
Stacy Mitchell: Yeah, yeah, maybe we should start a thread on Twitter or something that people could contribute to and that’d be fun. Yeah.
Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah.
Stacy Mitchell: So I also want to ask you about sneakers because every time I see you, you have fantastic sneakers on and I guess from the perspective of someone who’s always thought of running shoes as a mundane functional item that you wear to the gym. Where would one begin if you’re kind of interesting in exploring the fashions of running shoes.
Maurice BP-Weeks: So yes, so for the rest of the listeners, I have a ridiculous amount of sneakers. It’s kind of like my vice. I don’t really smoke cigarettes or anything like that so this is how I spend my vice money. Yeah, I would start with just buying some really fun colored sneakers because I think that’s actually the thing that is the gateway drug. I was once like you Stacy where I just only bought sort of sneakers for the gym and they were usually just black or gray and I think that all changed when I got a really nice shiny pair of very colorful sneakers that every one when commented on when they saw it. I feel like that’s the gateway drug for sneaker purchases.
Stacy Mitchell: That’s great. Do you wear all of your sneakers, like in a rotation?
Maurice BP-Weeks: No, no. I even have some that I’ve never worn before and probably won’t.
Stacy Mitchell: Wow.
Maurice BP-Weeks: I have a lot. I have way too many I know and I keep telling myself I’m gonna stop buying them and then I keep seeing cool ones and keep buying them, so.
Stacy Mitchell: Nice. Well, maybe next time you see me I will have crossed the threshold.
Maurice BP-Weeks: I hope so. I hope so, yeah.
Stacy Mitchell: Thanks so much for taking the time out today. It was great to talk with you.
Maurice BP-Weeks: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Stacy Mitchell: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power. You can find links to what we discussed today by going to our website, ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there you can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter. If you like this podcast, please consider sharing it with your friends and leaving us a rating on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. This show is edited by Lisa Gonzalez and produced by Lisa along with Hibba Meraay and Zach Freed. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction Al. For the Institute for Local Self Reliance, I’m Stacy Mitchell. I hope you join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Hibba Meraay manages communications for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies. A native New Englander, Hibba is a graduate of Boston University. Contact Hibba for media inquiries.