The Cameras in Your Car May Be Harvesting Data as You Drive

By Keith Barry
Consumer Reports

There’s a problem with a bike lane in Brooklyn, N.Y. City officials painted it along part of Manhattan Avenue, a major thoroughfare between the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods. But the lane suddenly ends at a busy intersection. It picks up one block east, but that isn’t obvious to cyclists. Most of them continue down Manhattan Avenue, where their path is often blocked by traffic and double-parked cars.

A few miles away on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Rutherford, N.J., there’s another problem: Drivers heading to the Meadowlands are taking a sharply curved off-ramp so fast that they have to slam on the brakes.

These and plenty of other problems around the world (in Barcelona, Spain; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Tokyo, for example) are made clearly visible on digital maps put together by a company called Mobileye: Speeding cars turn roadways red, and groups of cyclists glow like flames along bike routes. It’s a top-down view of all the traffic problems that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians encounter and complain about every day.

The maps aren’t being used by city planners—at least, not yet. Instead, they’re part of Mobileye’s unique pitch to investors, journalists, and potential customers. The company, a subsidiary of Intel, can compile those red lines and glowing bike lanes because it has access to a network of millions of sensors built into privately owned cars around the world that share data from commuters whether they realize it or not.

 

If you drive a newer car, it’s likely to have at least one built-in camera or sensor that powers important safety systems such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and blind spot warning (BSW), or that makes driving easier with assistance features such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering. Most of the software and algorithms that control those systems were developed by Mobileye.

But those same cameras and sensors might also be watching for potholes on the road and pedestrians on the sidewalk, then sending that information over a cellular connection you might not know your car had to a company you’ve probably never heard of so that it can create detailed data profiles of every roadway in the world.

Many Americans may be stuck at home right now due to the coronavirus pandemic, but when we all return to our normal driving lives, Mobileye’s technology will come with us. Every time you drive to work, take your kids to school, or go shopping, your car may be fitting another tile into the mosaic of a detailed composite map that can be sold in the growing market for car data.

“This type of data has enormous potential for public good, provided its collection is limited and handled in a way that protects drivers’ privacy,” says David Friedman, vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports. “The problem is that currently there are no federal laws limiting the collection and use of that data, or even requiring clear disclosure of what is being shared, and with whom. It’s the Wild West out there.”

So far, Mobileye has mapped more than 180 million miles of roads worldwide—including the street in Brooklyn and the off-ramp on the New Jersey Turnpike—and it’s scaling up. As soon as this year, the company plans to use the sensors built into vehicles from BMW to collect data about their immediate surroundings—a process Mobileye calls “harvesting.” Similar sensors are built into vehicles from Ford, Nissan, and Volkswagen, and Mobileye says it will be harvesting data from them in the U.S. by 2021.

And Mobileye isn’t alone. A startup called Carmera that currently collects roadway data from commercial vehicles eventually plans to do the same with the sensors that are already built into production vehicles from Toyota. Tesla says it’s improving its partial autonomy software by using video data it collects from private vehicles, and other companies are close behind.

Sensors are also crucial to the development of the autonomous cars of the future, which will require highly detailed, up-to-the-minute maps to help them “see” the world around them. But these maps may also end up influencing city planning, development, and policing decisions where you live, work, and travel. How that data is used will depend on who gets their hands on it, and could lead to massive profits. Analysts say that data collected from cars could turn into a $750 billion industry over the next decade.

Carmera and Mobileye are targeting urban planners as potential users of these high-definition, or HD, maps. They say that cities will be able to use the data to discover where crashes take place and where drivers tend to speed, find out which buildings aren’t accessible to disabled people, identify roads where burned-out streetlights need to be replaced and potholes need to be fixed, and see where cyclists and pedestrians are concentrated so that infrastructure can be built to keep them safe.

But privacy and data collection experts tell CR that insurers could use data gleaned from HD maps to raise rates for drivers who travel on streets where other drivers tend to exceed the speed limit, landlords could choose to raise rents in neighborhoods with lots of luxury cars, credit reporting firms could make inferences about people who live on streets with less lighting or more potholes, and law enforcement agencies could target pedestrians, homeless encampments, or public gatherings.

Ben Green, author of “The Smart Enough City” (MIT Press, 2019) and a researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., says the same data collected from cars to make cities “smarter” could have unintended consequences when used by other sectors, such as healthcare, human resources, and the media. “Maybe that data is then going to lead to profiles of you that then make an assessment when you apply for a job or apply for healthcare or any number of things,” Green says. “These systems can find ways, without breaking the law as it stands, of redlining people or excluding people.”

Raising a Car’s IQ

Today, most cars use cameras and radar sensors so that advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) such as AEB can prevent potential crashes before they happen. As these systems get more complex and take over more vehicle functions from the driver, they are starting to double check what their sensors “see” against HD road maps that are accurate to within a few centimeters.

“HD maps are crucial as you start to get into higher-level automation,” such as when cars are able to automatically steer within lane lines, says Sam Abuelsamid, a mobility analyst at Navigant, a consulting firm. “If there’s snow on the road and you can’t see the lane, GPS is neither precise enough or reliable enough for that kind of application.”

In order for HD maps to work, they must be updated constantly—so ADAS systems are trained to spot differences between existing HD maps and the real world their sensors are seeing. If there has been a change—say, if temporary lines get painted because of road construction—the sensors can send an update to the HD mapmaker.

Mobileye is creating HD maps in a project called Road Experience Management, or REM. The company says that as few as 10 cars passing down a newly modified road could send back enough data to build an updated map. Outside the U.S., Nissan and Volkswagen are already using REM data to improve their driver assistance programs. And a spokesperson for the map provider Here Technologies told CR it would debut HD maps in BMW and Mercedes-Benz vehicles next year.

Tal Babaioff, who heads up the REM program at Mobileye, told CR that the data collected from cars is not only anonymized but also extremely pared-down. “We’re not sending images,” he said. “We’re not sending license plates. We’re sending semantic information about the world.” Neither images nor the data derived from them are stored on the vehicle.

Even without HD maps, municipalities can access an unprecedented amount of information about where and when people are traveling. For example, 70 cities—including Los Angeles and Austin, Texas—collect data from micromobility services such as e-scooters and shared bikes. Boston and other cities have installed sensors on municipal fleet vehicles to measure things like air quality, tree canopy coverage, and street lighting. Law enforcement agencies already use surveillance cameras, license-plate readers, and facial recognition software. And a massive trove of data about pedestrian and vehicle movement has already been collected from smartphone apps that share a user’s location—not to mention information shared from video doorbells, smart speakers, insurance companies, and fitness trackers.

The advent of Mobileye’s REM project, however, marks the first time that this kind of data is being collected from private vehicles, says Navigant’s Abuelsamid—but he predicts it won’t be the last.

“There’s others out there that are doing similar things, but definitely Mobileye is the first one to do this at scale with consumer vehicles,” he told CR. The company is the world’s largest supplier of ADAS sensor software, and the massive number of vehicles containing Mobileye software is a huge advantage for data collection. “They’re going to have the sensors in the cars anyway to power their ADAS systems, and they need the maps,” Abuelsamid says. (Navigant does not disclose its clients but does work with companies that sell or provide access to data collected from vehicles.)

Big Business

For companies such as Carmera and Mobileye, the depth of data collected by their sensors opens up numerous potential new revenue streams. That’s because HD maps aren’t just useful for improving automotive safety and self-driving systems. They can also be used to create inventories of electrical boxes and poles for utility companies, find potholes or faded lane markings, or alert cities to where new bike lanes or crosswalks should be built—what Carmera CEO Ro Gupta called a byproduct of HD map creation.

For example, the company uncovered an unexpected source of pedestrian data when it took the privacy-protecting step of blurring the faces of bystanders its cameras captured. “We realized, ‘Hey, we’re counting a person each time,’” Gupta says. “We could create this very granular block-level indexing score across the city of how dense any block in the city is on a given month, day of the week, or time of day.”

Gupta says that Carmera has abandoned its early plans to sell that data to focus instead on HD maps for automotive customers. Now, Carmera gives sensors to fleet operators so that they can monitor their drivers in real time in exchange for unlimited access to the data those sensors collect. It also shares some of that data with cities. (The company does not share which fleet operators it works with.)

Mobileye talks about utility companies, city planners, public transit agencies, and law enforcement as potential customers for its HD map data. “There’s absolutely a significant revenue source,” Abuelsamid says. “It’s definitely a new business for Mobileye. They see it as a new revenue stream.”

The company says its maps can cost a city or another third party a yearly fee in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on how detailed they are and how much distance they cover. Babaioff says that in addition to safety improvements, cities would no longer have to conduct manual traffic counts of cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, which could make REM more cost-effective than traditional methods of collecting similar data. The company has already made a deal with a major U.S. city that has yet to be named.

These types of business arrangements are a huge business opportunity for the companies that have access to vehicle data: A 2016 white paper from industry research and consulting firm McKinsey projects that by 2030, data collected from vehicles may represent a $450 billion to $750 billion industry.

Privacy Concerns

How much control drivers have over the information their cars share largely depends on the privacy policies of the companies collecting it and—for now—the technical limitations of the equipment involved, including cameras, processors, and cellular networks.

Babaioff says that REM-equipped cars are intentionally designed to protect a driver’s privacy. “No images leave the camera,” he told CR. Data points are stripped of any identifiable information, and REM collects only segments of individual drives. “We will throw away the start and end of the drive,” Babaioff says. “If you drove from home to work, I would actually get [multiple different] segments that aren’t close to your home and not close to your work. This gives us ability to collect the data without you sacrificing any of your privacy.”

According to Mobileye, each vehicle broadcasts only about 16 kilobytes of road data per mile—about as much data as the text of this story. Overall, every car that harvests for REM will send out around 200 megabytes of data per year. That limitation isn’t only due to privacy concerns. It’s also about minimizing the cost and effort of storing and analyzing data from tens of millions of vehicles, then sending it back as updated HD map data. “That would be too much data, going both ways—both transmitting to Mobileye and transmitting it back to the vehicle,” Abuelsamid says. Even with such a small amount of data being sent from each REM-equipped car, Mobileye is able to harvest over 1.2 million miles of road data every day.

Alejandro Vukotich, senior vice president of the BMW Group’s driver assistance and autonomous driving development, said that BMW would not want raw camera data from the sensors in privately owned vehicles. “We are not interested in that,” he said. “It makes no sense, and no one would pay for it.” For example, a full hour of high-quality video can require over a gigabyte of storage.

Carmera, however, does broadcast video clips from its small fleet of partner vehicles so that humans can verify that its object-identification algorithms are working properly. Gupta says it would eventually be possible to use data from cameras installed in privately owned Toyota vehicles, but because of privacy laws—which he says are “good things”—and technical hurdles, “it’s going to take a long time for that to be available en masse,” he told CR. (The Toyota Research Institute, which has partnered with Carmera, did not respond to CR’s inquiries about the project.)

Even Tesla—which isn’t planning to rely on HD maps and instead sends what it calls “short video clips” from built-in cameras in its vehicles back to the company to improve its Autopilot driver assistance software—can’t collect that much data, Abuelsamid says.

Although the company has publicly released data from an owner’s car after a crash, a Tesla vehicle doesn’t save or broadcast everything it sees. “It’s selectively picking small tidbits of data and saving that because there just isn’t enough storage space on the vehicle to store that data, and it would be prohibitively expensive to transmit it all back to Tesla.”

Drivers can opt out from harvesting REM data, though Mobileye says how they can do so depends on rules set by the car manufacturer. BMW says that drivers automatically opt in to REM when they activate the car’s connected services and that they may lose certain connectivity features if they opt out, such as warnings about slippery roads and traffic signs. (Nissan and Ford didn’t respond to CR’s questions about REM, Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment, and a spokesman for Volkswagen told CR the company doesn’t “go into detail on specific technology suppliers and their specific hardware and software solutions.”)

But if how automakers currently communicate about privacy is any guide, drivers might not even realize they’ve opted in, says Johanna Zmud, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station who has studied automotive data privacy.

Plenty of carmakers already collect some data from private vehicles, Zmud says, usually with a privacy agreement that says they need the information “for diagnostic purposes.” In most cases, these policies may flash across the screen for a few seconds when a car is started, or it might be included in the stack of documents buyers have to sign at the dealership, buried between odometer disclosures and finance applications.

“I’ve seen some of the agreements that, for instance, automakers have for a purchaser and they’re very, very long,” Zmud told CR. “Most people just go to the last page and sign.”

Even drivers who say they don’t want their cars to share data may still allow their cars to do so, depending on how difficult it is to opt out, and whether opting out disables certain features. “There’s this concept called the privacy paradox,” Zmud says. “People say that they care about keeping their data private, but their actions belie that. They don’t act accordingly.”

The ability for a company to sell data collected from private vehicles may become more difficult in the future, according to Dorothy Glancy, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law in California who focuses on privacy and transportation. New laws in Europe and California that seek to better define control over personal data may threaten the revenue model that Mobileye and others rely on. “That issue will be very contentious over the next couple of decades,” she said.

Mobileye is aware of how this controversy may affect its REM project. In a 2016 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company listed future legal concerns about data privacy as a potential harm to its business. “It is possible that these laws may be interpreted and applied in a manner that may be inconsistent with our data practices,” the filing said.

Societal Impacts

Lorrie Cranor, director of the CyLab Security and Privacy Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, told CR that even if it seems like companies like Mobileye are handling the data they collect responsibly, that doesn’t answer the question of what other groups might do with it once it is shared or sold.

“If the data is going into algorithms to figure out where we need new traffic lights, and it’s never going to be released as a dataset, and deleted after a certain amount of time, it seems like it’s relatively low risk,” she says. That’s especially true when compared with more revealing datasets, such as information collected from mobile phone apps and traffic cameras.

But, Cranor says there’s no guarantee Mobileye or others in a similar business won’t sell data to third parties that may use it for purposes other than traffic planning.

Who gets to use large datasets largely determines how they get used, says Vinhcent Le, legal counsel at the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy group that aims to advance economic opportunities for people of color. Le said that he sees great benefits for cities to use data for good—but in his experience, data that’s sold usually ends up in the hands of those who have the most money or power.

“The potential is there for city planners, but in my head what happens more often than not is that private corporations, developers, people who are trying to sell you something are the ones who end up with that data, and they find ways to monetize it, and that ends up harming the same folks we’re supposed to be helping,” he told CR.

Consider Amazon’s rollout of same-day delivery in 2016. Although Amazon didn’t include race as a factor when choosing which neighborhoods to debut same-day delivery, an investigation by Bloomberg found that the service initially excluded predominantly black neighborhoods in several major cities. “What they ended up doing is denying people services on the basis of race even if they didn’t use race,” Le said.

Similarly, real estate developers or analysts could use the data to identify neighborhoods where luxury cars are parked, or how many grand opening signs are going up on a block—all ideas initially proposed by Carmera in 2017 that Gupta said the company has since abandoned. At the time, Carmera said this information could be used by real estate brokers, architects, insurers, zoning officials, and industry analysts.

It can be difficult to restrict how private companies use the data they collect, including HD maps. That’s due to an absence of regulation, says Justin Brookman, CR’s director of consumer privacy and technology policy.

“Real-time data collection can do a tremendous amount to promote safety and facilitate repairs, but people are right to worry about what their cars are sharing, and with whom,” he says. “The default is that companies can basically do whatever they want with data, absent some specific statute.”

Historically, Brookman says, companies have argued that privacy statutes violate their First Amendment rights, and courts have agreed. For example, in 2011 the Supreme Court struck down a Vermont law prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from accessing doctors’ prescribing records, saying that the law interfered with the companies’ ability to tailor their marketing messages.

And then there’s the question of law enforcement. While privacy advocates say that police investigations would be more likely to rely on cell-phone data, electronic tolls, traffic cameras, and a vehicle’s own event data recorders (which can capture how a car was being driven prior to a crash), police could still determine information about a driver’s daily patterns and “deanonymize” HD map data—especially if they already have access to those other databases.

They could also use HD mapping data to make decisions about how and where to police, which Le says may reinforce existing inequities. “We have all this mapping that shows you where people are jaywalking or where homeless people are,” he says. “That’s where you need to flip the script—that’s not where you need to send police, that’s where you need to send more services.”

Cities Get Smart

While it might be difficult to control what private companies do with data collected from vehicle sensors, there’s already precedent for controlling data usage at the municipal level. Cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., and Somerville and Brookline, Mass., have prohibited city agencies from using facial recognition data, and cities and counties across the country have banned automated license plate readers.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation operates on a policy of what privacy experts call data minimization—collecting as little data as possible to minimize the chances it gets abused—when it monitors and manages micromobility services. “The system is built to process only the minimum amount of vehicle data needed to fulfill our responsibilities to the public,” said spokesman Colin Sweeney. In addition, the Los Angeles City Council formally adopted data protection principles developed by the LADOT.

Kris Carter, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, says the city has already had to make decisions about whether to use data that may not adequately respect the privacy of its residents.

“There’s datasets you can buy out there that are generated by mobile advertising apps that people have on their phones that show pedestrian movements at a very fine degree,” he says. “I think for cities, there’s a fairly good question about whether we want to own and participate in that data collection of residents or not. And that’s still an open question, I think.”

For Carter, who has already collected data from sensors on municipal vehicles and smartphone apps developed specifically for use by Boston residents, a city must be transparent in how it chooses to use data it collects on its residents. “We want to make sure that people are aware of how government is using those types of datasets.”

One way of doing that, Le says, is by directly involving residents when cities choose whether to use new datasets that are available to them. “The solution is really democratic participation,” he says. “The people who live in that city should have some say in the technologies that are going to be used in their cities.”

But even if large datasets are being used responsibly by public entities, it doesn’t control what happens in the private sector. The public must also understand that the dystopian idea of a surveillance state isn’t necessarily a product of government, says the Berkman Klein Center’s Ben Green.

“We have a government-centric notion of surveillance and privacy,” he told CR. “In terms of Big Brother, we don’t want the government knowing what we’re doing and police knocking down the door. But we also need to think about surveillance from private companies—how does that lend them incredible amounts of power, not just over us as individuals but also over the public sector?”

Brookman says that ultimately it’s up to lawmakers to develop provisions that protect people against the misuse of data collected by this new technology.

“We shouldn’t have to trust companies to do the right thing, since their first obligation is to their shareholders, not drivers,” he says. “Americans deserve some basic level of privacy law to ensure that data isn’t being collected and shared in ways that are contrary to our interests,” he adds. “Right now, all bets are off.”

Salesforce plans to hire the laid-off family and friends of its staff. What about diversity?

By Levi Sumagaysay
Protocol

Salesforce, known for calling its employees “ohana,” is taking that family mentality up a notch. Seeking to fill 2,200 positions, the company says it will prioritize hiring current employees’ friends and family members who’ve had the misfortune of losing jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If an employee uses the #workingtogether hashtag in their referral,” a company spokesperson said in an email, “their candidate will be prioritized.”

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As unemployment surges, the San Francisco cloud software company’s initiative was met with a good deal of praise. A tweet about it by CEO Marc Benioff racked up nearly 2,000 likes by 5 p.m. Monday, and observers called it well-intentioned. But the plan also raised questions about diversity in hiring — a longstanding problem in the tech industry. Silicon Valley was built by friends and co-workers who relied on their personal and professional networks, which institutionalized a lack of diversity.

Salesforce has sought to be a leader in this area, focusing for years on diversity and equal-pay issues. The company has declared that it aims, by 2023, to have half of its U.S. workforce made up of underrepresented groups, including racial minorities, women, LGBTQ workers, people with disabilities and veterans.

The company famously spent an additional $3 million in 2015 after Benioff ordered a review of Salesforce’s gender pay gap and found that women and men were not paid equally. In the past few years, the tech giant has touted gains in diversifying its workforce, such as boosting the hiring of women by 2% in 2019 — though its hiring of minorities such as black, Latino, indigenous and multiracial employees inched up just 0.3% last year.

Told of the strategy, some observers who’ve studied workplace diversity said Monday that prioritizing referrals from employees’ friends and family members carried obvious benefits but could affect Salesforce’s progress on diversity.

The company spokesperson would not answer additional questions about the program, which a Salesforce employee said was announced internally via email last week. The company’s code of conduct, released publicly and available online, does not address such referrals, noting only that working with relatives can lead to conflicts of interest; the legal department is supposed to approve family members working under the same “reporting chain.”

“Most businesses in this country have been based on the good-old-boys network,” said Paul Goodman, technology equity director at the Greenlining Institute, an Oakland nonprofit organization that advocates for economic opportunity for minorities. “There’s a high-tech version of that. You have to be very intentional about offering those opportunities.” Goodman added, of the Salesforce initiative, that he “appreciates the intent behind it because we’re in a weird time.”

Karen Jaw-Madson, a Silicon Valley management consultant and principal at Co.-Design of Work Experience, agreed. “The benefits of this approach are obvious,” she said. “It builds goodwill and reputation, funnels opportunities to the unemployed, and enhances community when people get to work with their friends. However, there are potential downsides and unintended consequences to avoid, especially when it comes to reinforcing social inequality that comes with ‘who you know.'”

Robert Jones, a professor emeritus in Missouri State University’s psychology department who has specialized in nepotism and prejudice, noted that hiring friends and family members can “be a civil rights or discrimination issue, but it falls in both directions.” He pointed to lawsuits that have targeted anti-nepotism policies, alleging that they can end up working against women, who have been denied jobs at their husbands’ companies.

“If you’re from a family where there’s not an advantage, or from an underrepresented group, maybe [nepotism] would be beneficial,” he said.

In the case of Salesforce, though, current employees are still largely white and male. In its most recent diversity report, the company said its U.S. workforce is 62% white, 26% Asian and Indian, 4% Hispanic or Latinx, and 3% black or African American. Nearly 3% identified as multiracial, 0.3% as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 0.2% as American Indian or Alaska Native. Almost 65% of its workforce is male, and 35% is female.

Jones said that while many companies rely on employee referrals, “There’s a distinction between recruitment and referral and hiring. The actual hiring process needs to be fair.”

Goodman offered a word of caution about Salesforce’s strategy. “It brings up the same problems you always see in situations like this,” when companies rush to take action, he said. “Issues of diversity don’t get addressed.”

Greenlining’s Economic Summit Moves Online May 21

Virtual Summit Features Ibram X. Kendi, Alicia Garza, john a. powell and More

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director,  415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – As our nation faces a public health crisis almost beyond comprehension, The Greenlining Institute has moved its annual Economic Summit online – maintaining the same exciting list of speakers, including Ibram X. Kendi and Alicia Garza, and with early bird ticket prices starting at just $5.

Greenlining’s annual Economic Summit brings together thought leaders at the forefront of the fight for justice and equity for a full day of cyber networking, fireside chats, and thought-provoking panels on how we can ensure that recovery efforts reach all communities. The theme, We the Future, expresses the drive for

a nation where all communities have the opportunity to participate in the creation of healthy, thriving, resilient lives. With the COVID-19 crisis weighing particularly heavily on communities of color, discussions will look at specific issues such as the impact on small businesses and community nonprofits as well as broader themes such as movement-building in a time of crisis and reimagining the future with racial equity at the center.

WHAT: Greenlining’s 27th Annual Economic Summit: We the Future, a Virtual Summit on Racial Equity.

WHO: Ibram X. Kendi, Alicia Garza, john a. powell, Lateefah Simon and other distinguished community advocates and leaders.

WHEN: Thursday, May 21, 9:15 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

HOW TO ATTEND: Purchase tickets online and get all the details via our Economic Summit web page.

For News Media: Media are invited to attend without charge. For a complimentary link, email brucem@greenlining.org

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

###

THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute
www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

 

Need money during coronavirus pandemic? How to avoid loan sharks and debt traps

By Manuela Tobias
Fresno Bee

 

As millions of Americans lose jobs, shifts and other sources of income during the coronavirus health crisis, financial experts worry about loan sharks who stand to profit.

“We saw this during the foreclosure crisis, where people were in distress and scammers took advantage to promise to help people connect to relief for a fee they could not afford,” said Kevin Stein, deputy director of the California Reinvestment Coalition.

In 2018, there were 133 payday lenders in the central San Joaquin Valley, according to California records. But there were nearly 198 ten years prior when the valley began feeling the effects of the 2008 recession and spiking unemployment.

Payday lenders in California can loan up to $300 and charge a maximum of $45 in fees, according to the Department of Business Oversight. The average annual percentage rate for payday loans in the state was 376% last year, which is exponentially greater than the APR for most credit cards.

The payday loan industry says its businesses provide a needed service at an affordable cost. But advocates argue they prey on financially vulnerable families — most payday loan offices in California are located in zip codes with above-average poverty rates.

Almost 187,000 Californians filed initial claims for unemployment insurance last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

By June, private-sector job losses could climb to more than 55,000, or 11% to 12% of employment in the central San Joaquin Valley, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of a recent Economic Policy Institute study.

“We’re facing one of the worst unemployment crises we’ve ever seen,” said Adam Briones, director of economic equity at the Greenlining Institute in Oakland. “I think it goes without saying that when families are in crisis, those payday lenders are some of the easiest ways to get money quickly. It’s really tough to get out of that debt though.”

If you were recently laid off and need a loan, here’s how to get help without falling into a debt trap.

Go to your bank or credit union first

If you’re struggling to make a payment, contact your lending institution first. Rosa Pereirra, branch manager of Self-Help Federal Credit Union in Fresno, said they have allowed all their members to skip any of their payments in April like they sometimes do during the holidays.

“I would beg the public to call the institution they already owe the payment to because a lot of them get frantic,” Pereirra said. “We’re telling them, take care of yourself, stay home. I can promise you 99% of lenders have a way they can help people skip their payment.”

Banks including Wells Fargo, Citi, Chase and Capital One are encouraging cash-strapped customers to contact them to see what they can work out. Many can offer hardship plans, which could mean lower interest rates or smaller fees.

Briones, from Greenlining, said banks may not offer hardship plans offhand, so clients should do their research first, and ask for what they need. For additional resources, seek out the Department of Housing and Urban Development approved housing counselors or credit counselors from nonprofit organizations.

Regulators are also responding to this pandemic by asking large banks and community development financial institutions to start offering small-dollar loans. Briones said clients should ask their banks for a small loan before resorting to a payday lender.

“Wherever we’ve seen payday lending it does lend itself to predatory lenders. But if it is large national banks making small-dollar loans, at the very least there is a regulatory aspect. There’s a structure there,” he said. “Where we worry the most is non-bank lenders that aren’t regulated at the federal level and have much less accountability than large national lenders.”

If lenders ask for a canceled check, that’s a red flag, according to Pereirra from Self-Help Federal Credit Union.

“Most banks and credit unions are able to make a direct deposit. A lot of predatory lenders go ahead and want to have access to your account. With a check, they have the routing number and account number so they can try to pull it several times.”

Pereirra said small loans typically should run between 2.5% to 10%. If a rate exceeds 20%, she encouraged consumers to reach out to a credit union for refinancing help.

“I just saw one at 480% APR,” Pereirra said. “A lot of times we’re able to pay their high rate loans off.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has also created multiple guides on navigating loans and debts.

Coronavirus aid package

Trump signed a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill on Friday with significant relief for families and small businesses.

Individuals who filed their 2018 or 2019 taxes can receive a check of up to $1,200, as well as $500 for each child. You can calculate how much you receive here.

For many, advocates argue, that won’t be enough to cover rent or other expenses.

“We’re really concerned because we feel that for an economic recovery package to make an impact, those funds need to be consistent. We think families are going to need 12 to 24 months of payments to make it out of this economic fallout,” Briones said.

For now, that payment is a one-time deal.

The stimulus also includes $10,000 loans for injury disaster relief through the Small Business Administration to provide paid sick leave to employees, maintain payroll and make rent or mortgage payments. You can apply through SBA.

“This is a historic move on the part of SBA,” said Tara Lynn Gray, Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce president. “You can apply for the loan, not yet have an answer and within three days get $10,000. If you end up not qualifying, they don’t come after you for $10,000. That is unheard of for small businesses. And SBA loans are very difficult for us to get. Most people of color struggle greatly to get those loans.”

The Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Fresno Partnership have listed other resources for small businesses on their websites.

Manuela Tobias is a journalist at The Fresno Bee. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

Senate Bill Puts Corporations Ahead of People, Greenlining Institute Says

Covid-19 Crisis Requires Strong, Consistent Support for Workers and Small Businesses, Attention to Communities of Color 

Contact: Bruce Mirken, Greenlining Institute Media Relations Director, 415-846-7758 (cell)

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – The Greenlining Institute applauded today’s Senate approval of a Covid-19 relief and stimulus package as a good first step, but said that given the bill’s emphasis on corporations, much more will be needed to support American families, particularly in the communities of color that have been especially hard hit by the pandemic and economic crisis.

“The cash payments to families, expanded unemployment insurance and support for small businesses included in this bill will help to slow the bleeding, but they are just the beginning of what we must do,” said Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann. “We need a plan for a just recovery that supports workers and families and recognizes the special challenges in communities of color, where families and small businesses have fewer resources to fall back on. In addition, we also need a long-term plan that addresses structural racism and inequality in our economy. This bill represents just the first step in a journey toward an economy that truly works for all.”

Greenlining urged Congress and the president to consider the following as they plan future steps:

  • Implementation will be critical. The oversight committee that will oversee aid to companies must look like America, with at least three of five members being nonwhite and at least three being women. The inspector general’s and oversight committee’s purview should be expanded to include a review of the small business fund. This oversight should include a report within six months examining how long it has taken for funds to reach small businesses and to what extent those funds have reached businesses owned by people of color.
  • Families need consistent cash payments for the next 12 months. Economists are predicting “an economic tsunami” that will not end in a few weeks or even a few months.
  • Small businesses need an additional recovery package that matches the $500 billion industry funding in the current bill. They also need a pause in debt payments and incentives for landlords to pause commercial rent payments.
  • Homeowners and renters need a 12 month pause in housing payments, along with no foreclosures, evictions, or utility shut-offs during that same period. There should also be a particular focus on immigrants and unhoused populations.
  • Students need their debt wiped clean, which will add $100 billion in economic activity to the economy.
  • Cities need urgent help. The Federal Reserve should ramp up its acquisition of local municipal bonds so that cities have the funds needed to support communities.
  • Nonprofits, especially grassroots organizations providing desperately-needed community services, need a bailout. This economic tidal wave threatens small and medium-sized nonprofits, especially those led by people of color, and they need assistance equivalent to the roughly $60 billion being set aside for airlines.
  • Ensure access to health services. The $130 billion in aid for hospitals should ensure that funds are used to remove barriers to accessing care for low-income people who may lack adequate health coverage.

To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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THE GREENLINING INSTITUTE
A Multi-Ethnic Public Policy, Research and Advocacy Institute

www.greenlining.org
@Greenlining

US Workers Need Financial Relief Now

By Lea Ceasrine & Rose Aquilar
KALW

LINK TO AUDIO

On this edition of Your Call, we’re discussing the dire need for economic relief as millions of US workers are being laid off or losing their jobs.

According to SurveyUSA, a staggering 14 million people have been laid off so far. Economists say upcoming job losses will be unprecedented. As we head towards April 1, when bills are due, relief is still nowhere in sight. Why is it taking so long? We’ll get an update on the federal stimulus bill and find out about relief at the state and local levels.

Guests: 

Adam Briones, director of economic equity at The Greenlining Institute

Steven Greenhouse, former New York Times labor reporter and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor

The FCC Wants to Shut Out the Public – Again

by Paul Goodman
The Progressive

President Donald Trump is not a big fan of open government. He likes to implement policies without having to deal with annoying inconveniences, like input from the public.

For example, if you were chair of the Federal Communications Commission, and you wanted to spend your time handing out favors to huge phone and internet providers like AT&T, T-Mobile and Comcast, having to consider public input would be quite a nuisance. That’s what is happening right now, on an issue that affects nearly everyone.

The current FCC chair, Ajit Pai, is a former Verizon lobbyist who has repeatedly disregarded the public interest in enacting rules that hike corporate profits at the expense of low-income consumers and consumers of color. He’s still doing that on net neutrality.

In 2015, the FCC implemented net neutrality rules that prohibited providers from blocking online content or creating “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” on the internet — rules that were supported by 83% of voters, including 75% of Republicans. But phone and internet providers hated those rules, and one of the first actions Pai took after his becoming FCC chair in 2017 was to eliminate them.

Pai pointedly ignored comments from the public unless they contained “serious legal arguments.” He refused to consider more than 50,000 consumer complaints about net neutrality violations, and disregarded that more than a million anti-net-neutrality comments were fraudulent. In the end, an industry-sponsored study found that 98.5% of the unique public comments filed at the FCC supported net neutrality rules — but Pai eliminated them anyway.

Now he’s at it again.

A court recently held that Pai’s legal reasoning for getting rid of net neutrality meant that the FCC could not regulate internet-based 911 services, provide subsidies for internet service for low-income households, or control how internet providers installed their wires and cables on telephone poles. The court kicked the proceeding back to the FCC to address these regulations, which requires another opportunity for the public to comment.

Pai has set the shortest possible comment deadline of March 30, 2020 — once again demonstrating that he’s not interested in public input.

One of the cornerstones of our democracy, enshrined in the First Amendment, is the right to petition the government for redress — that is, to make our opinions known to policymakers. This principle permeates every level of policy-making in this country, from the right to public trials, to open meeting laws, to the right to access public records.

Chairman Pai is thumbing his nose at the principle and thinks he can disregard public input. Let’s prove him wrong — go to www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings/express and let the FCC know that the public will be heard.

In ‘Alice Street,’ Oakland Artist-Activists Build Power By Bridging Communities

By Sam Lefebvre
KQED

Throughout last year, the steel and concrete frame of a new building in downtown Oakland grew to obscure a sprawling mural. Protesters with picket signs disappeared from view, along with dancers, drummers and martial arts practitioners, leaving the faces of centerpieces Malonga Casquelourd and Ruth Beckford, pillars of the city’s black performing arts tradition. To passersby today the entire artwork is imperceptible behind an incoming housing development.

Alice Street, a forthcoming documentary by Spencer Wilkinson, shows how the Universal Language mural’s creation and erasure alike catalyzed a multiracial anti-gentrification coalition with significant, ongoing effects on real estate development and city planning in downtown Oakland. Set in just a few city blocks, it’s a story about intractable loss as well as collective refusal, depicting artists’ role in grassroots activism that builds power by bridging communities.

Wilkinson, 44, an Oakland filmmaker whose first feature, One Voice (2018), focused on the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, did not anticipate filming for five years when he started chronicling the mural’s design as part of a work-trade deal in 2014. Now he’s submitting the 70-minute Alice Street documentary to film festivals and arranging screenings in other cities grappling with gentrification. Wilkinson expects to announce more Bay Area screenings in the coming months.

Alice Street begins with Destiny Muhammad reciting a poem at the corner of 14th and Alice streets in downtown Oakland to subtle, vaguely religious music by Micah Berek. “An intersection of traditions, ancient rhythms, culture keepers and urban oracles,” she says. A montage shows the neighborhood’s cultural diversity and changing built environment. The credits roll, framed by cranes. Imposed on aerial footage of the low-slung flatlands are sharply rising housing costs.

The film shortly settles on aerosol artist Desi Mundo and studio painter Pancho Pescador of the Community Rejuvenation Project embarking on their largest mural yet: Four walls around a parking lot at Alice and 14th streets. For inspiration, they look directly across the street to the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, a historic city-owned hub of Afro-diasporic drumming and dance, and also to the Chinatown senior apartments and community center Hotel Oakland.

The story has no single conflict or antagonist. The challenge at first appears to be the muralists’ desire to represent two communities to which they’re admitted outsiders, and the project’s most outspoken opponent is an elderly white woman who objects to its exclusion of white people. As soon as the mural is designed and painted to the satisfaction of most neighborhood stakeholders, though, a housing development proposal threatens to render it totally invisible.

“People in the Bay Area are starting to see the benefits of Oakland,” says Maria Poncel of Bay Development, explaining to Mundo and Pescador that the mural will continue to exist behind the planned 16-story tower. “We’re going through sort of a second renaissance.” It’s one of several awkward remarks from developers, property owners and elected officials (has Mayor Libby Schaaf retired “secret sauce”?) that Wilkinson seems to highlight for their evident shallowness.

Halfway through the documentary, then, the mural intended to celebrate cultures at risk of displacement itself confronts disappearance, multiplying its symbolic potency. And the Malonga-Hotel Oakland bloc strengthened through the mural’s development acquires political power that Wilkinson—using interviews and historical flashbacks about racist city planning practices and housing discrimination in Oakland—casts in a longer lineage of racial solidarity.

The goal of the new coalition isn’t immediately evident in the documentary. Theo Williams, leader of Malonga tenant SambaFunk, says at a meeting that he doesn’t necessarily oppose the development, yet no one in the film persuasively argues on its behalf. Complicating the narrative are new problems: Noise complaints resurface concerns about intolerant new neighbors to the Malonga, and the activists crash a city planning process, demanding meaningful representation.

Unsurprisingly for grassroots activism, it’s a dizzying cycle of setback and success. A subplot about Jerry Brown’s early 2000s attempt as Oakland mayor to shutter what was then the Alice Arts Center is a welcome rejoinder to recent hagiography, but it creates some narrative whiplash. Still, the story regains focus when the coalition formally appeals the building’s planning commission approval in order to negotiate a community benefits agreement with the developer.

The coalition secured funds for the Malonga and for a replacement mural (now being designed for the wall of the Greenlining Institute nearby). It also modeled a strategy since used by the coalition to extract concessions from developers worth an estimated $20 million, organizer Eric Arnold says in the film—including 90 affordable homes. With this tactic the same activists recently won a raft of benefits for arts groups in the Kaiser Convention Center redevelopment.

“Resilience” is too often a buzzword that serves to normalize communities’ capacity to withstand abuse, especially from the mouths of powerful people in media and politics. It’s also too flat for the dynamic artist-activists shown in Alice Street, who dance in the streets and navigate city bureaucracy with equal verve. “And then we marched over to the planning office,” recalls Arnold of one decisive action. “It was probably the first time they’ve heard music inside of that office.”

Inevitably some of the story lines in Alice Street go unresolved. The cultural stabilization strategies in the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan published last year derive partly from activism shown in the film, but supporters are disappointed with what little officials have done to enact them. Likewise, tenants of the city-owned Malonga continue to feel chronically neglected, with Williams of SambaFunk recently telling KQED its problems haven’t changed since 1998.

Still, the documentary also captures a heartening generational shift. Standout interviewees Beckford and Michael Lange, the actor and director, died before the film’s completion, but Alice Street shows their commitment to Oakland’s cultural life enduring in Lailan Sandra Huen, Anyka Barber, Casquelourd’s son Kiazi Malonga and others. Wilkinson, meanwhile, is developing educational curriculum to promote the community benefits agreement model beyond Oakland.

It probably doesn’t feel like a silver lining to the muralists, but the four walls of Universal Language haven’t been buffed or repainted. The artwork remains. Recently on Broadway, demolition exposed some mid-20th century advertisements on the side of a building, relics of a barely-recognizable city. It suggests the possibility that Universal Language could daylight again in the lifetime of Oakland’s current residents. The question is who among us will be here to see.

For People of Color, Gentrification is More a Curse than a Blessing

By Stacy M. Brown
BlackPressUSA

From a dowdy provincial city in the 1980s, Philadelphia has become a world-class urban center through gentrification – primarily through landmark architecture that now sets the city center and University City, apart.

“Over 50, and retirees, are moving back from the suburbs where they raised their children into Center City and the Italian Market where I have lived since 1980,” stated Dr. Margaret J. King, the director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia.

“Of course, gentrification brings money into the city, while it also drives up home prices – some houses have multiplied their asking prices 15 times over 40 years,” King noted.

“Housing is being restored and renovated, making more of the city habitable and in fact desirable. Now the suburbs have flipped into a working-class magnet as well as a market for Millennials who can’t afford center-city prices yet,” King stated.

Gentrification isn’t just an issue in Philadelphia – not by a long shot.

According to a March 2019 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC), more than 135,000 Black and Hispanics around the nation were displaced between 2000 and 2012.

Gentrification and displacement of long-time residents were most intense from 2000 to 2013 in the nation’s biggest cities, and rare in most other places, according to the study.

During those years, gentrification was concentrated in larger cities with vibrant economies but also appeared in smaller cities where it often impacted areas with the most amenities near central business districts.

In Washington, D.C., 20,000 Black residents were displaced, and in Portland, Oregon, 13 percent of the Black community was displaced over the more than decade period that was studied.

Seven cities accounted for nearly half of the gentrification nationally: New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Diego, and Chicago.

Washington, D.C., was the most gentrified city by percentage of eligible neighborhoods that experienced gentrification; New York City was the most gentrified by sheer volume, study authors noted.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, gentrification is defined as the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area, such as an urban neighborhood, accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.

“Gentrification is rich people deciding they want a specific neighborhood as their own, and they get municipal backing, pay some money, and get all of the poor people out of there,” stated Mark Love, a New York realtor.

Neighborhoods were considered to be eligible to gentrify if, in 2000, they were in the lower 40 percent of home values and family incomes in that metropolitan area.

During the study, researchers found that most low- to moderate-income neighborhoods did not gentrify or revitalize.

Instead, they remained impoverished, untouched by investments and building booms that occurred in major cities, and vulnerable to future gentrification and displacement.

“When a neighborhood gentrifies, the cost of living increases, and it’s harder for low-income families to find housing, and that’s one of the biggest downsides,” stated Melanie Musson, a writer for ExpertInsuranceReviews.com.

“In a city like Philadelphia, neighborhoods are part of your identity. If you grow up in a neighborhood, you often want to remain living there your whole life because it’s who you are,” Musson stated.

“Unfortunately, sometimes, after several generations living in the same zip code, the newest generation has to find housing elsewhere because it’s too expensive to live where their home has always been,” she said.

Bruce Mirken, the media relations director for the nonprofit public, policy, and advocacy organization, The Greenlining Institute, said he lives in San Francisco and works in Oakland – two cities that are ground zero for the gentrification crisis in California.

“We see the most obvious results among the very low-income, who increasingly cannot keep a roof over their heads, leading to a growing homeless population,” Mirken stated.

“And homelessness in California has a distinct racial dynamic, tracing back through a long history of redlining and discrimination: Black Californians represent about six and a half percent of our state’s population, but about 40 percent of its homeless,” he noted.

In New York, where many residents are still growing accustomed to the decades-long gentrification of Harlem, the Bronx has forever been known as the city’s most urban borough. That’s quickly changing due to gentrification.

In November 2019, officials announced a $950 million, 4.3 acre, multi-tower, and mixed-use development along the Mott Haven waterfront. More than 1,300 high-end apartments are among the upgrades that are certain to price many long-time residents out of the area.

Mychal Johnson, a co-founding member of South Bronx Unite, told The Bronx Times that gentrification isn’t good for economically oppressed communities of color.

“It seems like the community board, and Borough president isn’t looking out for the community,” Johnson stated.

For the NCRC study, Shekinah Mitchell, the Neighborhood Partnerships Manager for the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corporation, noted that, as the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond’s history is steeped in racial oppression, inequality, and injustice.

Mitchell noted that, in 2016, Richmond had similar numbers of Black and White residents. From 2000 to 2016, the Black population decreased by seven percent, while the White population increased by 35 percent.

In 2000, Blacks were 57 percent of the population, and whites were 38 percent. In 2016, Blacks represented 47 percent and Whites were 46 percent of the population.

“This shift has come to the East End like a racialized wave crashing onto the shores of the neighborhood in currents of physical, cultural, and economic displacement. The Black community is drowning as we watch our land and culture swallowed up, block by block with no reprieve in sight,” Mitchell wrote in the report.

“Gentrification in the East End of Richmond is manifesting as a process of re-segregation,” she stated. “In Richmond, gentrification is colonization.”

In Portland, Oregon, an essay that accompanied the NCRC study noted that city as the “Whitest city of its size in the United States.”

The city’s White population currently stands at 77.4 percent while Blacks make up just 5.7 percent.

“Take a group of people who have been systematically denied wealth-building opportunities for generations, add low, stagnating incomes, throw in a subprime mortgage disaster, spiraling housing costs and wholesale community displacement, and you have a recipe for a severe economic backslide,” Cheryl Chandler-Roberts, executive director of Portland’s African American Alliance for Homeownership, said in the report.

“There is no African American community in Portland at this point,” Chandler-Roberts stated.

“It’s a scattered community.”

Banking is Changing. Its Lack of Diversity Must Change, Too, and Congress Can Help

By Rawan Elhalaby
CommonDreams

In Nicetown, a North Philadelphia neighborhood that was redlined in the 1930s, banks and mortgage brokers largely stay away. Lenders have been particularly stingy when it comes to home improvement loans. CREDIT: SARAH BLESENER FOR REVEAL NEWS

The financial industry is evolving quickly, but unfortunately it has remained static in one major way: Its leadership looks nothing like America.

That’s bad for communities of color, who will be the American majority in roughly 20 years, but it’s also bad for our whole economy.

At The Greenlining Institute, we regularly look at board and workforce diversity in agencies and private institutions across multiple sectors of the economy, including banks. In 2019, we studied the boards of directors of the ten largest banks operating in California, where we are based, and found that on average, people of color made up 30 percent of bank board composition, despite making up over 67 percent of California’s population.

Gender diversity was equally lacking, with women making up only 29 percent of bank board members. None of the 10 huge banks that we studied had more than 36 percent women board members.

These executive boards are the top decision-makers in financial institutions and drive the policies that ultimately impact our communities. Boards are accountable for the actions and behaviors of their institutions. They set the direction those institutions will go.

And those institutions often still don’t go in directions that help communities of color. My organization’s name, The Greenlining Institute, came from our founding purpose as the answer to redlining, the longstanding practice of denying loans and investment to communities of color. While long illegal, recent investigations by the investigative news organization Reveal found that redlining has not gone away; it persists in more subtle but still destructive forms.

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On an annual basis, we request data from national institutions that operate in California. We track and rank banks on indicators that impact communities of color.

We consider transparency to be critical because data gives the public a full picture of the diversity and inclusion — or lack of it — within financial institutions, helping to keep them accountable to communities of color and inform data-driven policymaking.

Unfortunately, we regularly experience difficulty in obtaining such data, making it much harder to produce fair and thorough research and hold banks accountable. We believe that such data should be disclosed voluntarily by financial institutions, but Congress has a role to play as well.

We’re concerned about regulatory barriers that prevent banks from effectively serving low and moderate-income communities and communities of color by preventing banks from collecting and disclosing race data to the public. We urge lawmakers to look to existing regulations that require government agencies and private institutions to disclose data on diversity and inclusion practices.

Section 342 of the Dodd Frank Act created Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion in eight agencies. These OMWIs have worked to build up a robust infrastructure that includes internal assessments, crafting strategic plans, and increase diversity in their large agencies. This represents a good beginning, but we need more transparency from the banking industry itself. And we definitely need to look at the largely unregulated Fintech industry, which appears to be even less representative of our country’s diversity than conventional banking.

Ultimately, America’s economy cannot prosper if communities of color don’t prosper. A more diverse financial sector can help make that happen.

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