Amazon HQ2 – Prosperity or Pain for your communities of color?


Amazon Seattle Campus aerial photo

This week’s post is diverging from the normal talk about race, equity, and nonprofits. I’ve been loosely following Amazon’s request for bids as they decide where to build a second headquarters. HQ2, as it is called, will be “an equal” headquarters to their Seattle headquarters and have a projected 50,000 jobs, and generate a bleeping-lot of money. All of this sounds really enticing to many cities. Many news articles have picked apart the deal, I’m not smart enough to do that, so I want to explore what this means to Seattle from a race and community-level perspective.

As cities are wooing the company, I hope the communities of color in those cities understand what they are in for. I don’t have the answer on what it could mean but I can share what I’ve noticed over the past few years of living and working in Seattle. While I’m not a Seattle native, I’ve been here for close to twenty years. I’m also an Amazon consumer using the company to buy everything from a gigantic bucket of emergency food for the impending earthquake (did that two weeks ago while procrastinating over writing the fakequity blog post) to the book Roly Poly Pangolin. I’ve seen Seattle change over the past twenty years and have also watched Amazon’s and other tech generated growth changed the landscape.

The growth of tech companies in Seattle brought prosperity and generous wage jobs to people working in the region, but that prosperity isn’t shared. In this 2014 article on the diversity of Amazon, not surprisingly the majority of Amazon’s workforce is white males. It goes on to say Blacks and Latinos make up only 4% of manager positions (each), Asians make up 13% of the workforce and 18% of managers. Native Americans aren’t even mentioned. To be fair this is a tech industry-wide problem and Amazon isn’t alone in being a white-male dominated workforce.

I did some quick online research and found an average annual wage of an engineer or technical manager, rounded to about $110k, at Amazon can fund about half of my nonprofit for a year. That is a lot of money concentrated into an echo-chamber of white-tech workers. I don’t fault them for making the wages they do, but without an income tax (WA is one of the few states in the US without an income tax) there isn’t a mechanism to redistribute wealth and share prosperity. I also wonder if those at the bottom of their wage ladders receiving a fair, livable, and growth wage? A new study out of the University of Washington School of Social Work shows a family of four needs to make $76,000 to live a no-frills life in Seattle; this is far beyond the $15/hr. many in Seattle have been aiming for. Is Amazon investing in their bottom wage employees of color to ensure they can stay in Seattle and have career ladders jobs and can they reach a salary job that allows them to fund half of my nonprofit?

Is the Criticism of Amazon Fair?

A friend posted on her Facebook page this article: Amazon earned Seattle’s hostility, which details wage disparities caused by the growth of the tech sector in Seattle. The post opened an interesting conversation about what Amazon has done, both good and bad, to Seattle. Amazon absorbs an unnatural amount of blame for everything, a sample of things uttered and heard by me: too many Amazon lunch shuttles in Seattle’s International District blocking all the good parking, too much-wasted cardboard from their shipping boxes, gentrification and displacement, and the Instant Pot craze. Others asked if the criticism is fair.

Amazon has done a lot to help Seattle grow to where it is today. The South Lake Union neighborhood where many of their offices are looks drastically different because of their company presence. Back when the company was starting they worked out of Beacon Tower on Beacon Hill in an old VA hospital. They also made a generous gift to Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter, offering them permanent space in their new Seattle headquarters. All of this is great and I still can’t ignore what Amazon and other companies are not doing to support communities of color. It isn’t Amazon’s fault and at the same time, it is.

Seattle’s communities of color have been hit hard by the growth of Amazon. African American friends share stories about how they know once they sell the family home in the Central District (a historically Black/African American neighborhood) they know they will never return because they are priced out. One family event — a job loss, a death or illness, a house fire – sends families of color fleeing from the city because they can’t hold on and stay in the city due to rising rent caused by the influx of new workers who need places to live. Yet leaving means giving up a precious network of support from schools, organizations, and friends. Is this Amazon’s fault no, but yes. The wealth generated and concentrated in the hands of a few have caused displacement and gentrification and other hardships.

The philanthropic giving Amazon has done is has been on their terms to benefit their interest. The bold and generous gift to Mary’s Place is wonderful, and it is safe. As a city, we need more support for unhoused people and it will help people of color. But at the same time, I look at that gift and think “of course the donation went to Mary’s Place, a historically white led organization who looks and sounds like them,” it was a safe place to make a gift. Where is the support for an organization like Chief Seattle Club, a Native American organization supporting many Native Americans experiencing homelessness? Other news articles talk about how Amazon supports Great, makes sense supporting the pipeline of getting kids interested in computer science. While is led by a poc, when I looked at their staff pictures I had to scroll a lot before seeing pocs – so again supporting good work, but on their terms and to organizations that look and sound like them. Another friend said their giving appears very transactional, not a great way to aim for systemic change.

Be a Good Neighbor and What the Next City Should Prepare for

If Amazon and their staff want to be good neighbors I hope they will open themselves up and understand how they are changing communities. The growth they have generated has been at the expense of communities of color. What will the company do differently to be a good neighbor and not just ask what is in it for them and their shareholders? A shared vision of growth must include what is good for communities of color and allowing communities of color to have self-determination.

Some might be asking what does Amazon have to do with self-determination of communities of color. This quote by Ijeoma Oluo helps to explain what I mean: “Look for where your privilege intersects with somebody’s oppression. That is the piece of the system that you have the power to help destroy.” The privilege of working at Amazon (and many other tech companies) comes at a cost to communities of color. The land Amazon sits on belonged to Native Americans, as we saw earlier Native American’s employment demographics weren’t even reported. The list of ills can go on and on. Communities of color need to have a say in how solutions to these problems can be found. Amazon has the power and responsibility to be part of the solution.

In a conversation with an Amazon employee, the person said government/policymaking has a responsibility to take care of housing and education and Amazon shouldn’t be blamed. I agree but I disagree, part of the solution finding has to be Amazon and their network to push policymakers and to generate the public will to change and to do it with communities of color.

Where is Amazon calling for tax-reform to share prosperity? Where are they on supporting organizations closest to communities of color? Their voice is absent from community level conversations. I could keep asking questions but I think I know the answers on where Amazon stands or doesn’t on social justice.

To the next city lucky enough to win the bid to host HQ2, good luck. To our sisters and brothers of color out there, stand strong and start organizing so Amazon doesn’t happen to you.

Posted by Erin Okuno

This blog post started as a reply to a Facebook post. Thank you to Annie for the original post.

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