Something Amazing Is Happening in California: UpLiftCA

California Pan-Ethnic Health Network
by Anthony Galace and Bruce Mirken

Every year, dirty air kills over 9,000 Californians. Shockingly, more of us die from traffic-related pollution than from traffic-related accidents. Smog increases rates of asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and the five most polluted cities in America are all in California.

Enough.

Fortunately, something amazing is happening in California. We’re charging polluters for the damage they cause and using that money to clean the air, save families money, and bring investments and jobs to communities that need them. But too few Californians know this is happening, or the good it’s doing for our neighborhoods. UpLiftCA will change that.

UpliftCA is a comprehensive campaign, with websites in both English and Spanish, which tells the story of how California’s climate policies are helping low-income communities and communities of color: cleaning the air, creating jobs and saving consumers money. The sites feature real-world stories, resources for both consumers and businesses, and more information about the laws. We invite you to visit UpLiftCA and share it with everyone you know. Come learn how California’s climate and clean energy laws and our fight against global warming are helping to build healthy, thriving neighborhoods.

California and the Proposed Comcast–Time Warner Cable Merger

The Post News Group
by Paul Goodman, Michael McCauley, Bruce Mirken, Tracy Rosenberg, Mindy Spatt, and Sarah Swanbeck.

Federal regulators are currently reviewing the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which would combine the two largest providers of both cable and Internet service into one giant corporation. At the same time, the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees telephone and broadband Internet service in the state, is evaluating the merger to determine whether it’s in the public interest.

If the merger is allowed to go through, Californians can expect higher prices, fewer choices, and even worse customer service. We’re writing to urge the Post to editorialize against the merger and to call on California PUC to use its authority to block this lousy deal in our state.If California acts to stop the merger, it would likely undermine the merger nationally.

Consumers are already frustrated with their lack of options. According to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, three quarters of Americans have no competitive choice for truly high speed broadband. Most have just one provider to choose from and it’s usually their local cable company. Cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high speed Internet connections in the country and Comcast is already the dominant player in the market.

If the merger is approved, Comcast would control most of California and over half of high-speed broadband customers in the country. One of the key areas where Comcast would extend its dominance is Southern California, including the Los Angeles market. In California it would cement the already existing duopoly of an incumbent telephone and a cable provider, leaving customers with even fewer options and hamstringing competition.

The merger would combine two companies that have consistently scored low in survey after survey on customer satisfaction. Both Comcast and Time Warner Cable were rated poorly by consumers in the latest Consumer Reports survey for value and earned low marks for customer support. Long waits with customer service, technicians who fail to show up as scheduled, and billing mistakes are some of the more common complaints. A larger Comcast with increased market power will have even less incentive to address these issues.

With meager competition come steep prices. Comcast has been among the worst offenders when it comes to price hikes, raising rates faster than other providers and significantly higher than the rate of inflation. Consumers can expect more of the same if the merger goes through. A Comcast executive has even acknowledged that the company can’t promise that customer bills “are going to go down or even that they’re going to increase less rapidly” as a result of the merger.

By controlling so much of the broadband market, Comcast would become, in effect, a national gatekeeper of the Internet with tremendous power to decide who could pass through the gate, and on what terms. Online video programmers would be dependent on Comcast’s “last mile” network for access to millions of consumers.

Comcast already used its gatekeeping power last year to raise prices on Netflix as a condition for ensuring faster and smoother access to broadband subscribers. The merger would give Comcast even more leverage to do this and make it difficult for smaller online video distributors to enter the market or compete. Consumers stand to lose since those higher costs will likely be passed on to them or they’ll have to put up with slower speeds from online content providers who can’t pay higher fees for faster speeds.

No one corporation should be allowed to dominate the marketplace and have that much control over our choices. Comcast could dictate what programs get carried not only in its markets but across the country. Since video programmers would have to distribute their programs through a bigger and more powerful Comcast, the merged company could hinder programming diversity by deciding what to carry, where, and when.

The companies claim the merger would not harm competition because they serve subscribers in different geographic areas. But that narrow view of how competition works does not make sense. By that logic, Comcast should be free to acquire every cable and Internet company throughout the country in every market it does not already serve. That’s why it’s so critical for California PUC to consider the national picture as it reviews the merger.

The proposed merger would cause disproportionate harm to low-income communities and communities of color, both of which already have lower broadband adoption rates. In addition, the proposed transaction would give Comcast the power to control which television channels are available to watch, potentially eliminating non-English content and diverse viewpoints from communities of color.

This concern is heightened by Comcast’s generally weak track record with communities of color and lack of minority contracting. While California telecommunications providers reported spending over $2.6 billion on supplier diversity in 2013, Comcast’s share of that amount was only $24 million, by far the lowest amount of any provider.

If this deal goes through, Californians can expect to be hit with more price hikes and worse service as Comcast gains even more control over what we see online and on TV. No package of concessions or conditions is capable of addressing the fundamental flaws in this ill-conceived mega-merger. The only effective response to the merger application, the only response that will serve the public interest, is for the California PUC to deny it.

For more information, please contact Michael McCauley (Consumers Union) at (415) 431-6747 and see the filings opposing the merger submitted to the California PUC by the Greenlining Institute and Consumers Union, TURN, and Media Alliance.

Last Year, America Discovered Race. Now What?

The Huffington Post
by Preeti Vissa

2014 was the year the U.S. discovered that race is still an issue in this allegedly “color-blind” society, among other things. It’s become so obvious that it even got noticed during last Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards, when co-host Tina Fey got one of the biggest laughs of the night by noting that “the movie Selma is about the American civil rights movement — that totally worked and now everything’s fine.”

We’re finally starting to notice that everything is not fine.

Just to speak the names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice says more about pain and injustice than we should ever need to say, but these tragedies represent just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Despite some recent gestures toward penal reform, the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of our blacks than apartheid South Africa did. And when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dared to say that he felt the need to counsel his mixed-race son to be extra careful in encounters with the police, NYPD officers responded with repeated shows of blatant disrespect.

Although the unemployment rate is lower today than in recent years, that positive statistic masks some grim trends. Job growth has been fueled in part by some workers trading good-paying jobs lost during the recession for lower-paying positions that are all they can find today.

This has no doubt contributed to our ongoing racial wealth gap, which remains stubbornly entrenched. For every dollar of wealth a white family has, the median Asian family has about 81 cents (a figure that masks pockets of real poverty within some Asian communities), the median Latino family has 7 cents and the median black family has less than 6 cents.

Questions of race also hit the NBA, where league officials struggled to clean up the mess created by the offensive comments of Donald Sterling, who owned the L.A. Clippers.

And questions of race and diversity finally caught the attention of Silicon Valley, where women, blacks and Latinos continue to make up a shockingly small percentage of the workforce, particularly in tech-related positions, management and the executive suite. We finally got a taste of what’s really going on when Laszlo Bock, Google’s S.V.P. of People Operations, told Gwen Ifill on the PBS NewsHour, “We like people who are like us, who watch the same shows, who like the same food, who have the same backgrounds. So we bring this unconscious bias to everything we do.”

At least he was honest about it. And being honest about these unconscious biases is an essential first step toward remedying them.

If the recent controversies around police shootings have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t be afraid to tackle the racial and ethnic implications of America’s problems — or their solutions.

Happily, I see glimmers of hope. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, more Americans of all demographic groups now have health insurance. And while black and Latino uninsured rates remain far higher than whites’, the gap is narrowing. From the end of 2013 to the end of 2014, the overall uninsured rate dropped by 4.2 percentage points, while the uninsured rate for Latinos dropped by 6.3 points and the uninsured rate for African Americans dropped a full seven points. That very happy news deserves more attention than it’s gotten.

I’m glad to say that my own state of California has led the way in aggressively and effectively implementing Obamacare, dropping our uninsured rate by half in the first year. Because health is so important to everything we do, this sort of progress will impact the racial wealth gap over time.

So will something else my state is doing. While there’s been some national news coverage of California’s laws to combat climate change and promote clean energy, there’s more to these policies than most people know. An important feature of California’s climate law guarantees that a quarter of carbon fees collected from industrial polluters will go to projects that uplift disadvantaged communities — cutting pollution, promoting clean energy, helping consumers, and bringing jobs and investment to neighborhoods that need both, often neighborhoods populated by people of color that for too long were used as toxic dumping grounds.

These positive models point the way. They can lead us away from the bad old days of “redlining” — deliberate disinvestment from communities of color — to what we call “greenlining”: a conscious effort to bring opportunity, investment and justice to those long-ignored communities. The question for America in 2015 is: Do we have the will to do it?

New Communications Revolution Must Benefit Everyone

The Fresno Bee
by Orson Aguilar

One hundred years ago, a communications revolution began. Recent leaps in technology have created a new communications revolution, but we must act to keep its benefits within reach of all.

On Jan. 25, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell in New York City called his former assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco, making it America’s first-ever transcontinental phone call. Transcontinental phone service was a breakthrough, but it was quickly imperiled by a Bell System monopoly that led to excessive prices and thwarted innovation.

Recognizing that telephone service was necessary for success and even survival, Congress acted to ensure that all Americans had access to basic phone service. Rules were set up to open up competition. Where telephone service was unavailable, universal service programs were created that encouraged expansion of the phone network.

Today, broadband is as essential as basic telephone service was a century ago. If you doubt this, just look at how many employers accept job applications only online. And we’re fighting the same battle for equal access all over again.

But providers view broadband as a luxury, preferring to sell high-priced service to those who can afford expensive bundles. And they have used their deep pockets and massive lobbying power to consolidate the market, forestall new companies from competing, and prevent communities from building their own broadband networks.

The companies want to offer better service to those who can pay more. That’s great for big corporations and wealthy individuals, but not so great for everyone else, who would be relegated to the back of the digital bus.

The Federal Communications Commission will shortly be issuing rules aimed at addressing this, through what is commonly referred to as “net neutrality.” That rather wonky term simply means protection for everyone’s right to access any content or applications they choose, without their Internet provider picking favorites or restricting access. Simply put, it’s equal access to the Internet. Period.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has recently made comments suggesting that he’s amenable to this idea, but in the past he’s also suggested he might allow Internet providers to charge extra to transmit some types of content. It’s hard to tell from his statements exactly where he will come down.

What we need from the FCC (or, if the FCC won’t act, from Congress) is simple: The Internet must be treated as what’s known legally as a “common carrier,” guaranteeing open access for all, with no fast lanes or special privileges for the wealthy and well connected. Nothing short of that will protect the new communications revolution 100 years after Alexander Graham Bell made his landmark phone call.

 

Clean Energy Policies Provide Jobs, Training

Capitol Weekly
by Vien Truong

Now that oil industry fear-mongering over gasoline prices has turned out to be completely phony, it’s time to take a serious look at the real impact of California’s climate change and clean energy policies on communities around our state.

Simply put, the news is good and getting better.  These successes and stories haven’t been widely shared, however, and we’re hoping to change that.

Meet Denny Sysaknoi, a 21-year-old who lives in Fresno, where the county’s unemployment rate is 9.5 percent, more than two points above the state average.

Denny shared with us that he “grew up with no parents” and in a corner of town that was “violent, and there were always shootings around.” His brother, a gang member, has been in prison in Oklahoma since age 15. Denny had his own brush with the law at 16, when he was arrested for possessing an unregistered gun. He got kicked out of school. He knows that his life could have gone downhill from there.

It didn’t. A vocational training program led him to nonprofit GRID Alternatives, which manages California’s Single Family Affordable Solar Homes program (SASH), installing free or low-cost solar for low-income families who couldn’t otherwise afford it, while providing hands-on solar training for people like Denny. An internship with GRID eventually led to a position as a crew leader with Lifestyle Solar, a Central Valley solar installer.

Thanks to this program, Denny has a promising career to support his family.  And thanks to AB 32 (Nunez/Pavley) and SB 535 (de León), SASH and similar programs are now getting a $75 million boost in the current fiscal year.

These programs will also be bringing more help for families like Leticia and Gerardo Ramirez of Madera. The Ramirezes are one of over two dozen low-income families in Madera who have received free or low cost solar power thanks to SASH. Gerardo drives a tractor in a nearby vineyard, and supporting four kids is a struggle. With solar, the Ramirezes annual cost for electricity will be about what most Californians pay every month. That, says Gerardo, “is going to help us save energy as well as money so we can use it to do things that we could not do before financially.”

You can read more about Denny Sysaknoi and the Ramirez family at UpLiftCA.org.  We’ll be adding additional stories in the coming months. The site also features helpful, practical information for consumers and small business owners.

Families like these are benefitting because of the work of visionary legislators like Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills). They have worked tirelessly to make sure our climate policies bring us two major benefits for the price of one: reducing fossil fuel use and cleaning our air while also bringing jobs, investments and opportunities to communities like Madera, where poverty and pollution have lived side by side for far too long. Thanks to their work, California is putting clean power in the hands of families who could never afford it otherwise, replacing dirty gas and diesel vehicles with clean, affordable forms of transportation for both freight and people, building affordable housing near mass transit, helping families and small business owners make their homes and businesses more energy efficient, and boosting the economies of our most struggling communities.

And these benefits will continue to grow. Governor Brown’s budget proposal continues to channel meaningful investments into programs that will help low income consumers weatherize their homes, get to work or school without fouling the air, and all the while creating more jobs for people like Denny and hard-hit communities like Madera. While there will and should be energetic debate and discussion about the budget – we think, for example, there may turn out to be room for even greater investments than the governor has proposed – the trajectory is clearly positive.

California climate policies have already improved lives by making polluters pay for the damage they cause and putting those dollars to work in the communities that need it most. Those benefits will only grow as more funds hit the ground, at least if we can hold back Big Oil’s continuing efforts to gut AB 32. Advocates and policymakers alike need to put some energy into getting the good news out into our communities. We invite you to use UpLiftCA.org as one tool to help spread the word.

California’s Smart Climate Policies Righting Historic Wrongs in Oakland: Part II

Oakland Local
by Vien Truong

Last week, I wrote about the history of environmental racism that has afflicted Oakland as well as communities of color and low-income communities across the state. Today, I want to introduce you to part of the solution.

His name is Denny Sysaknoi, and at age 16 he was headed for trouble. He grew up in a rough neighborhood with parents who were rarely there for him. His brother was in a gang, and is still in prison today. Denny was arrested at age 16 for possession of an unregistered gun, and got kicked out of school. His future looked grim.

But his life took a different turn. Today, at 21, Denny installs solar panels on the homes of low-income families in Fresno, where he grew up. He has a family. He has a career. He has a future.

What’s happened to Denny is beginning to happen for others in polluted and economically struggling neighborhoods up and down the state, and Oakland is one of many communities that will benefit. But Big Oil is trying to strangle that progress when it’s barely off the ground.

You see, California is doing something incredibly smart. Thanks to a law called AB 32 (Nunez/Pavley), we’re charging polluters for the junk they put into our air – carbon that causes climate change as well as the particulates and toxic chemicals that come with it. That includes big, industrial polluters as well as the oil companies making all that diesel fuel that so fouls the air into much of Oakland.

And we’re using that money for projects that help reduce pollution even further, while creating jobs for people like Denny. Thanks to follow-up legislation sponsored by The Greenlining Institute and other community advocates, SB 535 (deLeon), one quarter of those funds must go to projects that benefit highly polluted and economically disadvantaged communities.

Some of that money will go to bolster SASH, California’s Single Family Affordable Solar Homes program, making clean solar power affordable for low-income families, which has funded many of the projects Denny has worked on and where he got trained as a solar installer. Other funding will help families and small business owners make their homes and businesses more energy efficient, create affordable housing close to mass transit, and help replace dirty gas and diesel vehicles with clean, affordable forms of transportation.

The first year’s SB 535 funding, $272 million, will start rolling out this spring. But California’s climate law has already started to fund an Oakland Project that will capture and use organic material from solid waste, keeping over 20,000 tons of material out of East Bay landfills capturing the methane it produces, while creating both permanent and temporary jobs. That’s just the first, tiny start to projects here and around the state that will clean our air and put our people to work for years to come.

But we have to fight to protect this law, which is under ferocious attack from Big Oil and the fake “consumer” groups the oil lobby has created. They’re barraging the public and the legislature with misleading, distorted claims. Appallingly, they’re even claiming to represent low-income Californians – the very people whose kids are literally being poisoned by the pollution their products produce, and who are getting good jobs from California’s smart climate policies.

We’re fighting back. This week, we launched a new website, UpLiftCA.org, that tells the story of California’s sensible, forward-thinking laws to fight global warming. Here you can find Denny’s story and the story of a low-income family that now has clean, affordable solar power thanks to Denny’s crew.

There will also be clear information about how these laws work, the good they’re doing for neighborhoods that have been neglected for too long, and resources for families and business owners looking to save energy and save money.

The site will grow over the coming months as we add more stories, information and resources. We’re giving it all we’ve got, but the blunt truth is we don’t have the money and resources that the oil lobby does. We’re depending on people power. We’re depending on you.

Please visit UpLiftCA.org and learn the true story of how California’s climate change and clean energy laws are uplifting our air, our jobs and our neighborhoods – and help spread the word. The lungs you save may be your own.

California’s Smart Climate Policies Righting Historic Wrongs in Oakland: Part I

Oakland Local
by Vien Truong

Let’s start with one undisputed reality: Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods have long been used as environmental dumping grounds, sites for the sorts of facilities that wealthier communities don’t want. It’s not an accident that there are no oil refineries in Mill Valley or Beverly Hills, or freeways running through Pacific Heights. Those sorts of things usually end up where people have less money and less political clout.

Oakland is no exception. If you look at the maps generated by CalEnviroScreen – the state of California’s tool for identifying communities with the worst pollution and greatest economic needs – the orange and red colors that designate the most troubled areas slice right through the heart of our city. These include neighborhoods located along International Boulevard and the 880 freeway to the east and in the sections of West Oakland surrounded by the 880, 980 and 580.

That’s not a surprise. A few years ago, the California Air Resources Board examined pollution in West Oakland and identified a number of major sources of smog in the area, and they’re pretty much what you’d expect: Trucks, cars and buses – especially diesel trucks and buses — traveling the freeways and heading toward the port, locomotives coming in and out of the Union Pacific Oakland Railyard, other diesel equipment at the port and railyard, and ships in the port. As you might guess, diesel particulates from these facilities are a major problem for our air.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that help is on the way – not just for Oakland, but for polluted and economically struggling neighborhoods from San Bernardino to Fresno to our own back yard. That help is coming from smart, sensible policies to combat climate change, charge polluters for the garbage they put into our air, and use that money to promote clean energy and bring both cleaner air and good jobs to neighborhoods hit first and worst by pollution and global warming. There are lots of potential projects in Oakland that need some of this funding – projects that could help clean our air, bring jobs to our city and make our neighborhoods more attractive.

This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, it’s real. A few years ago the California Legislature passed AB 32 (Nunez/Pavley), officially dubbed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which limits the amount of junk that can be put into our air and charges polluters for the pollution the produce. The Greenlining Institute joined with other advocates to sponsor follow-up legislation, SB 535 (de Leon), that guarantees that one quarter of those funds go to projects that benefit highly polluted and economically challenged communities, with a minimum of 10 percent going to projects actually located within those communities.

This is serious money — $272 million in the current fiscal year, with much more to come – and these dollars will start to roll out in the coming months. But the struggle isn’t over.

Big Oil – via its trade organization, the Western States Petroleum Association, and assorted front groups pretending to represent consumers – is still fighting to kill California’s climate change and clean energy laws. They’re leaning hard on our legislators to weaken the law even as I write this.

But we’re fighting back. In part II next week I’ll explain more about how California’s clean energy policy is already helping California neighborhoods, the potential benefits for Oakland, and the campaign we’re launching to protect these life-saving laws from Big Oil.

A New ‘Too Big to Fail’ Bank for the 1 Percent

The Huffington Post
by Preeti Vissa

Remember back in 2008, when collapsing banks nearly tanked our whole economy and people had the quaint notion that maybe we shouldn’t let banks become “too big to fail”? Would you be shocked to learn that regulators may well approve creation of a new “too big to fail” bank from the ashes of one of the very institutions that crashed our economy?

Meet OneWest Bank, which is seeking to merge with CIT Group, a deal that would meet federal criteria for what’s politely termed a “systemically important financial institution” — one whose failure could imperil the financial system. OneWest is the successor to IndyMac Bank, one of the first and biggest to collapse as the financial crisis was hitting high gear in the summer of 2008.

IndyMac was a textbook case of reckless, exploitive lending often aimed at communities of color. A report from the Treasury Department’s inspector general found that IndyMac offered an “extensive array of risky option-adjustable-rate-mortgages (option ARMs), subprime loans, 80/20 loans, and other nontraditional products.”

IndyMac’s collapse cost the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation $10.7 billion. OneWest was born from the ruins when a group of wealthy investors bought the remnants of IndyMac from the FDIC.

Not only will the OneWest/CIT merger create another bank that’s worryingly large, that bank will be run by people who seem to have learned nothing from IndyMac’s collapse.

Advocates, including my colleagues on The Greenlining Institute’s Economic Equity team, have tried to open a dialogue with OneWest officials. We hoped that the new institution would chart a different course, working to benefit communities instead of ignoring or exploiting them. You’d think a bank growing from the ashes of one of the institutions that sparked the foreclosure crisis that ruined millions of families would make some effort to at least look like it’s moving in a new direction.

Nope.

For example, we asked OneWest to make meaningful commitments under the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which encourages banks to invest in underserved communities. The bank revealed a so-called CRA plan in September at a meeting in Los Angeles. The plan, concocted with no community input, commits the new bank to precisely zero additional lending. OneWest CEO Joseph Otting made clear that he has no intention of negotiating a better agreement with the advocates who were leading the effort to hold his bank accountable.

Otting also make clear that nonprofits opposing the merger could forget any chance of receiving philanthropic donations from OneWest. Subtle, huh?

OneWest’s marketing and products have been geared to the wealthiest customers in its market area (primarily southern California), with only 15 percent of its branches in low and moderate income communities and no plans to build new branches in low-income areas. In addition, OneWest Bank makes only three percent of its purchases from vendors and suppliers that are minority owned — despite being based in a southern California market with over 70 percent people of color. There’s no indication that this will change. Unless federal regulators call a halt, we are literally witnessing the creation new too-big-to-fail bank for the one percent.

The Federal Reserve should reject the CIT/OneWest merger application. At the very least, regulators should stop the clock, hold public hearings and get some real community input before allowing this dangerous deal to proceed.

Once Upon a Time, the Supreme Court Upheld Civil Rights

Progressive Media Project
by Orson Aguilar

Fifty years ago, on Dec. 14, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected a legal challenge to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making possible half a century of progress toward fairness and justice.

It’s hard to picture the current justices doing the same.

The case was called Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. A motel owner in Georgia wanted to keep discriminating against black patrons, arguing that the Constitution did not allow the federal government to prohibit private discrimination.

Back in 1883, the court had indeed said the federal government had no such authority. And Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, was a strong advocate for the view that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional.

Had the motel succeeded, the law would have been toast, and the history of the last 50 years would have been radically different. We might well still have businesses with “Whites Only” signs in parts of the country.

Happily, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law, stating unequivocally that the federal government does indeed have the power to protect Americans from discrimination.
Would the current high court do the same? Probably not.

Last year, the Supreme Court gutted the other key pillar of civil rights protections, the Voting Rights Act. “Our country has changed,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the court majority. The law, he said, was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

In short, Roberts and colleagues held that because the Voting Rights Act had worked, it was no longer constitutional.

The same argument could easily be made against the Civil Rights Act today. After all, “Whites Only” signs have disappeared, right? Segregated lunch counters and drinking fountains are historical relics, so why should the feds be able to dictate private behavior based on old facts “having no logical relationship to the present day”? Because discrimination still exists, even if its more overt manifestations have faded. We still live in a country with profound racial inequities, and the notion of a colorblind America is a myth.

The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling to gut the Voting Rights Act provides proof. More than half of the jurisdictions that used to have to get federal approval for changes in voting rules — because they had a history of discriminating against minority voters — rushed to pass new restrictions on voting. Ample evidence shows that these restrictions disproportionately hurt the poor and voters of color.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court was a beacon of hope for those who had the least in this country. Sadly, those days seem to be over.

Raising the Minimum Wage Isn’t Enough

The Huffington Post
by Preeti Vissa

As I wrote last month, for millions of American families, the recession has never ended, despite a booming stock market and a lower official rate of unemployment. As Republicans and Democrats sort out the changed political landscape they’ll have to navigate next year, one lesson from our recent election is unmistakable:

Americans get that economic inequality is crippling our nation and they want our leaders to address it. Even as Democrats were getting their heads handed to them in both red and blue states, voters in those same states were doing what they could to help working families. In every state where a minimum wage increase was on the ballot, it passed easily, with some the biggest margins in red states. The same Arkansas voters who handed Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor a 16 point defeat passed a minimum wage increase by a nearly two-to-one margin. Voters in Alaska, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota did likewise.

Congress should pass a federal minimum wage increase yesterday (and if Republican leaders are listening to their own voters, they should lead the charge), but that’s not enough. A higher minimum wage will help millions who are stuck in low-end jobs to make ends meet, but if families are to prosper – especially in the communities of color that got most hammered by the Great Recession – they need pathways to real careers and opportunities to build assets and prosperity.

The good news is that there are ways to help that happen. The bad news is that some things that could help probably can’t get done politically, and some things that may be politically feasible could take us in the wrong direction if not done right.

For example, there is a lot of talk about corporate tax reform. The Greenlining Institute and others have complained for years about big companies parking hundreds of billions of dollars in profits overseas to avoid paying taxes on them. So far, the political talk is mostly about lowering corporate tax rates, but anything deserving to be called “reform” must include a push to collect the taxes that these companies are dodging – and then use that money for education and investment in communities that still struggle. Think about what could be done if we collected those missing billions and put them to work helping students pay for college, or on infrastructure projects that could generate contracts for thousands of small and medium-sized businesses across the country, many of them rooted in the communities of color that have been on the wrong end of the racial wealth gap.

That shouldn’t be a political non-starter given the election results, but in our dysfunctional politics, it may be. Even so, officials can still take meaningful action. Recently, my colleagues on The Greenlining Institute’s Economic Equity team raised a few of them with policymakers in Washington:

Small businesses play a critical role in generating jobs and building wealth, especially in our nation’s African American, Latino and Asian communities, and the Small Business Administration must take a more aggressive role in ensuring that these entrepreneurs can access the capital they need to grow and prosper. Happily, SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet’s statements suggest she understands the importance of these diverse small businesses.

The SBA can take numerous actions that will make a difference. It can push banks to increase SBA lending to Main Street small businesses. It can help these small businesses build capacity by connecting them to technical assistance and training that will help them put those loans to work. It can pilot an SBA direct loan program that targets businesses in areas lacking access to capital.

And on a variety of fronts, government financial regulators can collect — and make public — better, more detailed data that gives us a clearer picture of how our banking and financial system serves (or fails to serve) the needs of all our communities. This sounds wonky and obscure, but remember: We can’t fix what we don’t know.

Congress and the administration can act to protect and expand crucial reforms contained in the Dodd-Frank Act. They can start with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which continues to do important work protecting consumers from the sorts of abuses that tanked our economy in the first place.

Less known but just as important are the Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion, created because Congress understood that including diverse voices in the management of both financial businesses and the agencies that regulate them can not only help communities of color and low- to moderate-income Americans, but ultimately strengthen our whole economy. For example, the OMWIs can encourage the financial industry to open up narrow “old-boy networks” of suppliers and contractors and provide more opportunities to diverse small businesses.

The OMWIs don’t have the power to enforce diversity practices, but they can collect data and use their bully pulpit to lend a hand to small businesses in underserved communities. Right now, it’s not clear that they’re stepping up to the plate in a meaningful way, but our whole economy will benefit if they do.

Also, Congress must act to prevent a whopping tax bill from hitting homeowners who got their loans modified as part of settlements reached with major banks. This is simple: Just renew the Mortgage Debt Relief Act that was unfortunately allowed to lapse last year.

These suggestions aren’t dramatic or headline-grabbing, but small actions done right can make a big difference. Large portions of our society are still hurting, and officials of both parties must act.