Holtec CEO stereotypes Camden and Congressman Don Norcross calls his constituents “children”

There have always been plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the Economic Opportunity Act and its extreme corporate giveaways (largely focused in Camden). They received poor overall value per job. They left New Jersey at risk of tremendous losses on the back end of the tax credits. They had virtually no mechanisms to ensure community benefits. Yesterday, an article in ROI added to the list — now we need to worry about discrimination by companies receiving tax credits, and then our elected politicians backing those companies rather than defending constituents.

Here’s Holtec CEO Krishna Singh — the largest subsidy recipient in the program — showing ugly bias against the Camden community:

“There is no tradition of work in families,” he said. “That has been a problem. If we hire 10, we keep two. The other eight weed themselves out.”

Singh, a self-made millionaire, is trying to understand it.

“They don’t show up to work,” he said. “They can’t stand getting up in the morning and coming to work every single day. They haven’t done it, and they didn’t see their parents do it. Of course, some of them get into drugs and things. So, it’s difficult.”

Now, in most communities, local politicians would immediately come to the defense of constituents. Not in Camden, and not Congressman Don Norcross:

“When you stop to think about it, I say children are that one asset that you can’t blame them for anything,” he said. “Same thing goes for people who have not had a structure that taught them.

South Jersey Women for Progressive Change’s* statement tackles many of the troubling issues within this article:

Rather than defend his community and his constituents, Norcross sided with the CEO, going so far as to compare Camden constituents, whom he is elected to represent, to children: “When you stop to think about it, I say children are that one asset that you can’t blame them for anything,” he said. “Same thing goes for people who have not had a structure that taught them.” This is an offensively paternalistic attitude, and it is incredibly disappointing to see an elected official siding with big business at the expense of the community he represents.

We wish that Norcross had instead attempted to hold these companies accountable for investing in the community, which is what they were supposed to do in exchange for the quarter-billion dollar tax breaks they received. It is unclear how effectively or thoughtfully Holtec is investing in the communities and its employees. Is there a comprehensive training program? Is there assistance with reliable transportation for employees? Is affordable child care offered? How many employees has Holtec fired and for what reasons? How diverse is the Union? These are all questions that should be answered before assuming the community is to blame. 

All too often what gets lost in this conversation are the voices of the employees and residents themselves.Did Norcross speak to any employees to verify Singh’s claims, or did he merely take the CEO’s word for it? Has Singh or Norcross or anyone else asked employees to share their experiences and their side of the story? Viewing people of color as faceless and voiceless resources to be exploited is an example of systemic racism- and we expect our elected officials (and the companies they invite in) to be better than this. 

Singh made it quite clear how he feels about investing in Camden in and its residents- that is to say he has absolutely no intention of doing so at all. In fact, Holtec is doing its best to not have to hire any Camden residents at all. Singh explained, “We’re trying to automate a lot of processes, so it doesn’t rely on human skill, as it has in the past. Automation is definitely modifying worker needs. The high-skilled work that required people to learn and spend tens of thousands of hours to get good, that work can be done by machines. Which is the good news — because we don’t have such workers. This plant would be crippled if we relied on workers.”

By all means, go read the whole thing.

Moments like these matter, because they make bias and ugliness that is an everyday reality for communities of color visible and tangible. For every one time a CEO blanketly stereotypes a community saying “of course, some of them get into drugs and things”, there are millions of incidents of bosses thinking those same things. There are millions of employees of color for whom this isn’t a shock, but a daily reality. They have to work in spaces where the ugly bias of their employers means they come in with two strikes against them. We need to hear those voices and those experiences. That’s where change starts.

*my wife is on the board of South Jersey Women for Progressive Change.

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