Congresswoman Maxine Waters Speaks Up About Closing The Racial Wealth Gap

For the past 32 years Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been representing California’s 43rd Congressional District. She is considered one of the most powerful women in American politics. 

With more than 40 years in public service, Congresswoman Waters is no stranger to smashing barriers and making history: she is the first Black Congressmember, and first woman, to become the Chair of the Financial Services Committee. She was also responsible for “the nation’s first statewide Child Abuse Prevention Training Program” during her tenure in the California State Assembly, to name a few of her extensive accolades and accomplishments.  

Over the past several years, Rep. Waters has been a fixture in the spotlight for her extremely vocal and outspoken opposition to former President Donald Trump, constantly fighting for justice and advocating for fellow Black women, leading by example. Her phrases and tweets have been hailed as iconic and are reminiscent of her strong core beliefs, including “I am a strong black woman. I cannot be intimidated, and I’m not going anywhere.” 

With midterm elections in progress, Congresswoman Waters sat down with ESSENCE to discuss reclaiming her time, the importance of homeownership as a tool for Black economic mobility, and what she aims to accomplish regarding her legacy. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

ESSENCE: You have oversight over all the nation’s banks and are the first Black woman to be in this position.  What does this mean for you?  

The importance of being the chair of the Financial Services Committee means that I’m in a position where I can now deal with public policy that relates to national financial matters. We not only have the banks, we have Wall Street, and we have the insurance companies. One of the greatest opportunities has been when I created a subcommittee on diversity and inclusion, not only looking at the private sector, but also looking inside government agencies to ensure that we open up these opportunities for people of color, to be able to influence public policy and carry out the kinds of efforts that we’ve not had access to before. Without diversity and inclusion, Blacks are basically left out of the conversation and unable to influence public policy. Now that I’m here, I can take care of these kinds of issues.  

ESSENCE: What do you think we can do to bridge the racial wealth gap? 

We have been the victims of discrimination and racism throughout this country, in every sector of this country, and government even played a role in it, in the way that they allow major corporations and banks to have their way with public policy. Oftentimes, that meant these big corporations and companies would find a way to expand their profits, which in turn would victimize people of color and others who did not have lobbyists and representatives in Congress to speak up for them when these decisions were being made.  

I believe that closing the wealth gap is extraordinarily important. Some of that has to do with home ownership, if we can get rid of predatory lending, and we have done some of that with the Dodd-Frank reforms. Getting rid of predatory lending means that we will open up the opportunity for home ownership without discriminatory predatory lending [practices], and paying excess rates that others are not paying, higher interest rates, and having an opportunity to be treated fairly.

When we have home ownership, [given the fact that] property appreciates in most states, not only do we have money to send our kids to college, we can basically ensure that we pass on our wealth and have inheritances that we’ve not had before, that give our children an opportunity to start out life a lot differently. Closing the wealth gap is high on my priorities, and we’re insisting on every opportunity that comes before us, making sure that the corporations have boards that are diverse and inclusive, ensuring that there’s upward mobility for people who’ve worked in financial services. We haven’t been able to get in the C-suite and make decisions on a large scale, and so we are focusing on that in every way that we possibly can to open up these opportunities so that we have the income, we’re able to invest, and that we’re able to create wealth and pass it on to break this cycle of poverty. 

ESSENCE: Your use of the phrase “reclaiming my time” was iconic and became very popular on social media. Do you have any advice for our readers on how to empower themselves in the workplace? 

First, one of the things that we’ve got to do is empower people to speak up. Because we have been discriminated against and undermined so long, when we get the job, we don’t want to we speak up and risk getting fired. I want to encourage people to identify what they know about the workplace, how many years they’ve been working there without upward mobility opportunities, and dealing with outright discrimination. We want that reported so that it is dealt with legally. We want to make sure that they have the opportunity, not only to address what is happening, but also bring lawsuits so that they will get paid great sums of money for exposing those who are creating the discrimination and the racism. 

In addition to speaking up, we want people to not be afraid to apply for jobs that they believe that they can be effective in. Right now, we have non-people of color who apply for jobs that they don’t have background or experience in, and they learn when they get there or fail trying to learn. On the other hand, we have people [of color] with lots of experience, talent, and education and they see a title and they think, “oh my god, I might not be able to do that. I don’t think I’m going to apply.”  I say, APPLY, APPLY for these positions that you believe that you can be successful in.

When we get on the board and the top management is more infused with people of color, we will have folks who are looking out for them, who will speak up on their behalf. Right now, we’re raising the question, meeting with major corporations and government entities, looking at boards where many of them made commitments after the George Floyd killing that they were going to be more diverse. We’re calling on them for accountability now, and following up on what they have done. How have you changed your hiring practices? Have you filled your board with more people of color, Black women, etc.? 

ESSENCE: What do you hope for your legacy to be? 

I don’t have the empirical data, but I do believe that Black women in leadership are challenging discrimination and racism in every way. When we take a look at the increasing numbers of Black women being elected, and look at what’s happening in New York with their Attorney General going after Trump and also in Georgia with another Black woman going after Trump—Black women are on the move. I’m hopeful that my legacy will be that I opened up opportunities to close the wealth gap as well as more appointments to important positions in the financial services industry, and that [these actions] made a difference, and that difference was experienced throughout our communities where we did not have those opportunities before, and that’s what I’m trying to do and inspire others, to be motivated to do that in every aspect of our lives. 

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