Not So Fast: Celebration of Amazon’s Withdrawal from NYC Reeks of White Privilege

On Valentine’s Day, Amazon abandoned its plans to open a second headquarters in New York City, taking with it about 25,000 high-paying jobs (at at least $150,000 a year) but also abandoning the $2.8 billion in tax incentives that it would have gotten had it stuck to its HQ2 plans. Sustained protests and opposition from certain local politicians were at the root of this breakup, according to Amazon. The politicians, rather exuberant at Amazon’s exit, took credit for it themselves.

In the big picture scheme of things, many commentators have pointed out that neither Amazon nor New York City really needed the other, and that both will be just fine without HQ2 in Long Island City. Perhaps that’s true. But organizers and politicians ignored the will of their own communities, especially those of people of color, something that happens with alarming frequency under the ‘progressive’ label.

A Sienna College poll conducted in early February revealed that 56% of New Yorkers supported Amazon coming to LIC, compared to 36% opposed. Support was steady across income levels, ranging from 56% support from those making under $50,000 to 60% of those making over $100,000.

All major ethnic groups polled support Amazon’s expansion in the city also, but support among white New Yorkers is the lowest, barely above half supporting it and 4 in 10 opposed, while support among Latinos is through the roof at 81%. African American support significantly outmatches white support as well, at 70%.

Many of the concerns local organizers and politicians raised are valid, rising rents and housing prices chief among them. As a citizen of Silicon Valley, I can sympathize and confirm these issues are real. It’s also true that Google’s expansion model, less and less dependent on local tax breaks, avoids the uncomfortable question of why multinational giants need these tax breaks, even if one could make a convincing case that those breaks are investments with big returns.

Note, though, that Google’s expansion model without pining for local tax breaks still pushes up rent and real estate prices, gentrifies neighborhoods, and taxes the local transportation infrastructure. Amazon’s tax break in New York, by contrast, came with the condition that it expand away from the core of Manhattan and into Long Island City, which actually had the potential to reduce traffic and the toll on the subway into Manhattan at the start of a work day and away from it at the end.

To help relate the two charts above, consider this: the median household income in New York is about $61,000. Interestingly - but not surprisingly - the income scale tends to skew white. White New Yorkers have a median annual household income of $70,000, while black and Hispanic households bring in roughly $42,000. Given the gap and the two charts above, it is clear that focus of New York’s anti-Amazon campaign was not the working class, but the white working class.

The point of this commentary is not to establish the right-ness or wrong-ness of Amazon’s New York plans, but rather to point out that Leftist activists often fail to represent people of color, even in a place as diverse as New York. Their plans of attack neglect to build broad support among communities of color. If they accuse city officials and big business of not listening to their communities and making deals behind closed doors, is their own organizing - three months of which has clearly failed to persuade people of color - any better?

A common retort to this line of questioning is to point out that economic displacement, rising rent and real estate prices, and gentrification affect disadvantaged communities of color more than whites. While that is true, it’s all the more reason to take into account the opinions of those one believes is most likely to be affected. Otherwise, the protests and its success - despite being frontally represented by a woman of color - start to feel like white privilege attempting to steer away jobs and economic development people of color want.

Why do people of color feel so differently, despite what seems to be legitimate issues of affordability and transportation - and tax incentives - when large companies expand? One reason might be that these places are already unaffordable and transit already most crowded for working class people of color. New York ranks among the most congested and the most unaffordable cities in the US, and people of color bear the brunt of those pains already.

It should be noted that most African American residents of New York City live in Queens as well as Brooklyn and the Bronx, the boroughs on either side of Queens, where Amazon’s HQ2 would have been located. Disproportionate numbers Latinos live in Queens and the Bronx. One could easily note that the entrance of Amazon’s HQ in Queens would have brought jobs to those neighborhoods and increased home values for those neighborhoods. Compared to Manhattan, these boroughs have much lower home values and much higher concentrations of black and brown people. Is it wrong for those residents to see a major tech giant’s entry to the neighborhood as a way to increase their own net worth, reduce their commute and bring jobs their neighborhoods, especially when we consider not just the HQ jobs but the associated benefits to local businesses and economy?

This also demonstrates a larger point: traffic congestion, affordability, and gentrification are not new problems. These did not begin to exist because of Amazon’s plan to open HQ2 in Queens, nor will they go away because Amazon withdrew its plans. More to the point, the disparity in housing, commute and income experienced by people of color will not get better just because white working class arguments kept Amazon from coming to the city. These problems are deep and devastating, and activists will need to do more than come up with clever chants to deal with these.

Further, although the tech sector is badly imbalanced in terms of ethnic diversity especially when it comes to Hispanics, Native Americans and African Americans, a review of Amazon’s pay in 2015 showed that their employees of color have pay parity with white counterparts who do the same work. That internal review was conducted in response to activist investors who raised questions about gender and ethnic pay gaps, and it bears noting that those activists were satisfied with Amazon’s report. In other words, people of color have good reason to believe Amazon would do better by them than have businesses in the city, the state and the community at large.

These are all issues that were missing from the discussion among the organizers who ultimately forced Amazon to leave. These were missing from the upside down Amazon Smile signs at protests, from the field of vision of politicians who panned the deal as devastating for the poor and the middle class, and from the vocabulary of organizers and politicians who celebrated the breakup.

Large corporations deserve scrutiny. Their incentives deserve to be under a microscope. But the lack of inclusiveness in the mainstream Left’s protest-centered movements also needs to be challenged. The ignorance and dismissal of the opinions of people of color should be exposed. The institutional stranglehold of white privilege even in movements whose faces are increasingly non-white needs to be addressed and broken up.

We need to do better.