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Julianne Malveaux is an author, economist and founder of Economic Education
Julianne Malveaux, NNPA Newswire Columnist
Published: 15 August 2018

There has always been bigotry in this country. In 2018, thanks to the leaders of the civil rights movement who risked their lives fighting for equality and justice, things are much improved. But these days some racists in this country are feeling encouraged to express their ugly views in public or discriminate against people of color.

Recently, Vivint Solar—one of the largest sellers of solar panels in this country—was sued in California by a Black employee who alleges that his superiors likened him to a monkey; used a racial epithet against him; and that his coworkers used cardboard boxes to build a fort around their desks that was marked as “White only.” The complainant's lawyer provided pictures of this absurd and abhorrent cardboard façade to the media and The Sacramento Bee published the photo.

David Bywater, the top executive at Vivint Solar, told the media that he was “deeply disturbed” by these allegations.

“I want to firmly state that Vivint Solar has a zero-tolerance policy for racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace,” Bywater said. “Our company is built on the strength of diversity.”

This is precisely what a CEO is supposed to say, but a person of conscience would back their words up with action.

A deeper dive into Vivint’s practices makes me question Bywater’s sincerity.

In March, Hector Balderas, the Attorney General of New Mexico filed a against Vivint Solar, accusing them of fraud, racketeering, and unfair business practices. Balderas says the company, which sells rooftop solar panels employed "high-pressure sales techniques and procedures designed to mislead consumers" and lock their customers into contracts lasting 20 years, with rates that increase "by over 72 percent," as the agreement matures.

Also, according to the Balderas' office: "The complaint also charges Vivint with filing improper notices in consumer real estate records that operate to cloud titles, in some cases, making it difficult for New Mexico consumers to sell their homes." There is also some evidence that consumers of color and low-income consumers are targeted for these pressure tactics.

I've been interested in the solar industry, because it is an expanding industry that increasingly provides new opportunities. However, there also seems to be additional opportunities to exploit consumers, especially minority consumers. I've written about my concerns about the ways the industry targets less sophisticated consumers, echoing concerns raised by several members of Congress in a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in early 2017. In response to my concerns, the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) used a consultant to harass me and my staff. I received and accepted an apology from the CEO of SEIA. I hoped they were sincere in their stated concerns about consumer protection and also about diversity in their industry.

But Vivint Solar, with its "White only" fort, is a member of SEIA. The allegations of racial discrimination and harassment involving Vivint Solar seem inconsistent with SEIA’s stated values. What must they do? I have some ideas:

First, SEIA should ask Vivint Solar to leave their trade association. If SEIA wants to represent rooftop solar makers that respect consumers and employees, then Vivint Solar needs to go. If SEIA doesn't take action against Vivint Solar, there is no accountability, which only further erodes trust with minority communities.

Further, SEIA should back up their statement, that CEO Abby Hopper has established diversity of solar’s workforce and customer base as among her top three priorities. SEIA should also work to increase awareness about their “Diversity Best Practices Guide” by funding and hosting consumer education seminars around the country to better inform consumers, especially minority consumers, about their rights when it comes to the rooftop solar industry.

I have always been excited about the ways solar energy can reduce our dependence on fossil fuel, as a power source. But the solar energy movement is crippled when companies like Vivint Solar both take advantage of customers and discriminate against minorities. It’s not enough to have a “Diversity Best Practices Guide.” SEIA needs to let best practices be their guide in their dealings with Vivint Solar. Silence is complicity. It is time for good people to stand up against racism. SEIA: What say you?

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