Commentary Human Rights

From Seattle to Queens, There’s No Economic Justice Without Racial Justice

Lena P. Afridi

The Amazon HQ2 spectacle is a particularly egregious example of well-established economic development strategies that have failed low-wealth communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color countless times.

When my family moved from Karachi, Pakistan, to the United States 25 years ago, we landed at John F. Kennedy airport in Queens, New York, and never left. Like many working-class immigrant families, we made a home in Queens. We lived with aunts and cousins, everyone under a single roof, until we gained our footing and moved into separate homes, some merely blocks from the first house we had lived in when we arrived.

Queens gave us stability, community, and opportunity. It became home when not many other places were accessible to us. With the announced expansion of Amazon’s corporate headquarters (HQ2) to the borough, Queens is now in danger of becoming inaccessible to the very communities that make it desirable, to the people who call it home.

Communities of color have historically been displaced in order to make room for wealth. From the settler-colonial roots of the United States to legacies of colonialism to the modern-day practices of urban renewal and gentrification, communities of color have been removed from their homes and neighborhoods for centuries.

Today, the legacy of displacement reinvents itself through economic development strategies that center profit over people to force the same marginalized communities out of their neighborhoods over and over again. And in each instance, communities are told by politicians and policymakers that the benefits outweigh the costs, that they must make concessions in order to have basic community needs met. We’ve seen it in New Orleans, in Baltimore, and now in New York with the arrival of Amazon HQ2. But activists and advocates don’t have to keep making the same mistakes. The fight for economic justice needs to center racial justice, with the voices of communities of color at the forefront.

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Last week brought the news that New York state had committed over $1.7 billion in public tax subsidy to entice the wealthiest corporation on earth to do business in one of the most desirable cities on the planet. The entire deal was made behind closed doors, and the project will have little to no input from community members.

As history shows us, communities that are most deeply affected by large-scale development are excluded not only from what happens in their neighborhoods, but how public dollars are spent. While New York has promised billions in subsidies to the world’s wealthiest corporation, the New York City Housing Authority, the agency charged with maintaining the country’s largest public housing system, continues to crumble. Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing development, lies less than a mile from the proposed Amazon site. The day after Amazon announced its imminent arrival to Long Island City, the mostly Black, Latinx, and Asian/South Asian Queensbridge residents announced that they had neither heat nor hot water.

Further, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to apply what’s known as a General Project Plan circumvents New York City’s already onerous Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)—an imperfect model for community engagement but the only opportunity residents have to weigh in on what’s built in their neighborhoods. Notably, ULURP was developed, after decades of community organizing, to minimize exactly this kind of top-down mega-project planning.

Histories of redlining, disinvestment in communities of color (with disinvestment of Black communities used as a blueprint and applied to other communities of color), and persistent lack of access to intergenerational wealth-building have left communities of color especially vulnerable to the impacts of large-scale urban redevelopment programs, especially the rising cost of living, which results in housing instability. Communities can be proactive and fight for community benefits agreements but these are stopgap solutions to mitigate systemic problems that repeatedly arise when residents are left out of the planning process.

In New York state, 47 percent of Black families and at least 50 percent of all Latinx, Asian, and mixed race families spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In New York City, Black and Latinx communities are much more likely to face eviction. We can only anticipate this will grow in the areas disproportionately affected by Amazon’s HQ2.

In the weeks after the official Amazon announcement, speculation has already hit fever pitch. There are reports of investors from across the country snatching up condos  and real estate companies chauffeuring prospective buyers in vans all over the borough, some hoping to purchase multiple buildings at once.

With 47 percent of its population born outside the United States, Queens is home to residents who were often displaced from their countries of origin due to economic scarcity, religious or ethnic persecution, war, or natural disaster. Others moved here from other parts of New York City, forced out of their longtime communities because of gentrification. Now they are once again at risk of displacement at the hands of a corporation that already profits off the exploitation of communities of color. Amazon has built its empire not only by offering convenience, but also by assisting in detention, surveillance, and union busting—all of which have a disparate impact on communities of color.

While these populations have the most to lose from projects like Amazon’s HQ2, they are promised the most to gain by policymakers and companies alike. Politicians across the country salivated at the chance to bring Amazon and tech more broadly to their cities without acknowledging the serious challenges posed by such an investment. The constant refrain has been that tech jobs are good jobs. However, tech remains a deeply inequitable sector. As I have written in the past, people of color employed in tech earn significantly less than their white counterparts. The highest percentage of Black and Latinx tech workers are employed in the lowest paying jobs in that sector.

Whether good jobs materialize in Queens or not, it is unlikely that the 25,000 jobs Amazon brings will go to local residents at all. The promise of high-paying tech jobs never materialized for many Seattle residents. While the tech industry may have created new jobs, they were inaccessible to many Seattleites. With an influx of highly paid workers and the rising cost of living, longtime residents were forced from their neighborhoods and communities to inner-ring suburbs. Those already facing economic precarity were left without homes at all.

Seattle has the third-largest homeless population in the United States. Fifty-three percent of Seattle’s homeless population is nonwhite, while people of color comprise only 34 percent of the city’s total population. Black Seattleites have been particularly hard hit: Twenty-nine percent of the city’s homeless population is Black, while only 6 percent of the city’s total population is Black.

The Amazon HQ2 spectacle is a particularly egregious example of well-established economic development strategies that have failed low-wealth communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color countless times. From the legacy of urban renewal to the failed Centennial Olympic stadium in Atlanta in 1996 that led to the displacement of 30,000 low-income residents to the more recent battle to stop the Keystone Pipeline, packaged as an essential economic stimulus project, what’s been deemed necessary economic development by elected officials, urban planners, and policymakers has always come at a price for communities of color. The bid for Amazon is simply new packaging of old strategies that put profit before people, and it’s a model that policymakers continue to replicate nationwide.

If any true change is to be made, activists need to learn from history. It is impossible to separate the fight for racial justice from the fight for economic justice. As we envision the future of our communities, let’s take a lesson from history and center the voices of those most at risk of displacement. Let’s ensure that communities of color are no longer forced to negotiate away their neighborhoods in order to get necessary resources. Let’s fight for an equitable alternative to what’s been presented as the only option for development, one where people are prioritized over profit.

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