Conservatives Try ACORN-ing Greenlining


After three decades, it took a pair of right-wing activists masquerading as a pimp and prostitute, equipped with a hidden camera, a phony storyline, and access to Andrew Breitbart’s well-traveled websites, to finally take down ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). With that success under their belts, the right has moved on to other targets. In April, the San Francisco Examiner, now a conservative news operation owned by a Hollywood mogul, one of the richest people in America, launched an attack on the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute (greenlining.org).

In partnership with CalWatchdog.com, a news service sponsored by the Pacific Research Institute (PRI), a conservative think tank that claims to be non-partisan, the tabloid newspaper manufactured a "scandal" in a splashy six-part series. The series pivots around another goal: the repeal of the Carter administration’s Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1978. While the attack on Greenlining has the veneer of balanced journalism, it betrays itself through a series of provocative, unsubstantiated charges, the use of inflammatory rhetoric, and no factual evidence.

Defund The Left Campaign

In 1981, the Heritage Foundation produced "Mandate for Leadership," a document for the Reagan administration aimed at moving conservative ideas into the mainstream. "One challenge, as Heritage saw it," the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch points out, "was to counter the rise of its ideological opponents by whittling away their status as ‘public interest’ organizations and eliminating federal financial support for ‘liberal’ groups."

Other conservative think tanks—most notably the National Center for Policy Analysis, the Capital Research Center, and the New Citizenship Project, along with a host of conservative political columnists, right-wing radio and television talk show hosts—took up the challenge, as SourceWatch notes, "to curtail funding of non-profits," but also to introduce legislation "aimed at silencing advocacy groups." Over the years, targets have included Planned Parenthood for America, the Sierra Club, and ACORN.

This past September, Michelle Bachman, addressing a conservative conference about Congress’s vote to cut off funding to ACORN, triumphantly stated that, "defunding the left is going to be so easy and it’s going to solve so many of our problems."

The Greenlining Institute

At its website, Greenlining describes itself as "a national policy, organizing, and leadership institute working for racial and economic justice." It was co-founded in 1993 by Robert Gnaizda and John C. Gamboa (both recently retired) and involved members of the African American, Asian American, Latino, and disabled community "to fight redlining and institutionalized discrimination." Its stated mission is to "empower communities of color and other disadvantaged groups through multi-ethnic economic and leadership development, civil rights, and anti-redlining activities." As opposed to redlining, greenlining "would be the proactive effort of bringing investments to communities."

One of the lynchpins of the Examiner’s Greenlining series was its attempt to link the organization to ACORN as "another corruption-addled group." In the series, Tori Richards stated that Greenlining has "been called a bunch of shakedown artists, a growing menace, and a cousin" to ACORN. In an April 12 story headlined "Greenlining & ACORN: Two peas in a pod?" Richards asked: "Are they two sides of the same coin?"

In another story titled "Radical Greenlining Institute perfected legal bank heists," Richards wrote: "Most recently, Greenlining officials have begun aiming their proven high-pressure intimidation tactics at the trillions of dollars in assets held by private foundations across America. What started two decades ago as an organization to help minorities and low-income residents obtain bank loans morphed into a political intimidation machine that has infiltrated the sectors of public utilities, insurance, education, health care and charities."

While the Greenlining Institute’s Executive Director Orson Aguilar dismissed the series as "pretty weak journalism," he acknowledged that "the underlying issue is serious" in that the Examiner is "using us to attack the Community Reinvestment Act and [by extension] the whole idea that huge Wall Street financial institutions have some responsibility to the communities they serve. We may be the scapegoat du jour, but the real aim is to blame low-income communities for a financial crisis that was caused by inadequate regulation and greed. We have no intention of backing down."

Community Reinvestment Act

CRA is a federal law aimed at mitigating deteriorating conditions in low and moderate income neighborhoods by addressing discriminatory lending and credit practices known as redlining. At its website, the Greenlining Institute points out that the CRA "rates large financial institutions based on three practices: their lending, their investments, and their services. Financial institutions must demonstrate to regulators that its activities in each of these three sectors are adequately serving the communities in which they have market presence."

Over the years, the CRA has been repeatedly revisited. In 1995, for example, it was revised under the Clinton administration to prevent financial institutions with poor CRA compliance records from participating in mergers. However, as the Greenlining Institute notes, "The main responsibility for enforcing CRA lies with consumer protection groups" and the CRA "as it is currently implemented has weak disciplinary powers for non-complying institutions."

In this post-stimulus, post-bail out period, Greenlining "believes that CRA should be expanded to cover insurance companies, credit unions, investment banks, and other essential parts of an interrelated financial services industry."

Aguilar reported that, "Free-market zealots blame CRA and those who support it for the subprime disaster, but 75 percent of subprime loans were issued by institutions not covered by CRA—independent mortgage brokers and lightly-regulated bank subsidiaries…. Anti-regulation zealots hope to avoid further oversight of financial markets—and loosen what already exists—by blaming CRA and its supporters for causing the recession, when the real culprits were inadequate regulation and greed."

On April 16, in an editorial titled "Repeal CRA, stop blackmailing banks," the Examiner asserted that, "The CRA gave ACORN, Greenlining, and legions of similar groups leverage to extort loans and mortgages in return for not conducting devastating PR and political pressure campaigns designed to libel offending banks and bankers as racists."

Greenlining’s Orson Aguilar told me, "If that’s extortion, then everyone from the Heritage Foundation, Pacific Research Institute, AARP, to the ACLU is also guilty. The bottom line is this isn’t really about us, it’s about distracting from the real cause of the economic crisis—greed and fraud. Instead, some want to…blame the crisis on the poor and on laws that have helped the poor, such as the Community Reinvestment Act."

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Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.