Years ago while wandering aimlessly through the New Orleans French Quarter, I came across an old bookstore. In an effort to support small businesses instead of the behemoths that dominate the industry, I decided to buy a few books. One of them was The Black Power Imperative by Theodore Cross. It’s the weight of a smedium chihuaha and just shy of 1,000 pages of charts, tables, quotes and raw gangsta analysis of American history with emphasis on the black experience and our pursuit of “power”. At first glance I thought, big black book written by old white guy?…Sign me up!
I wouldn’t say this book changed my life but it certainly shaped the way I’d think about my contribution to the movement. To me, Cross’ examination [see what I did there?] of the Black experience is incalculable and laid a foundation for me and other black investors and entrepreneurs to build on. Flipping through the pages I began to soak up the meaty details of moments in history that I’d only heard in passing, in super-conscious hip-hop lyrics and independent film documentaries here and there.
The third chapter, entitled Banquets and Breadlines: The Racial Distribution of American Wealth, was an in-depth review of the wicked intersection between politics and economics. His play-by-play of US policy-making dismantled the misperception of blacks having an equal playing field as whites. That is, if you care about facts like I do.
This book was a gateway drug to my curiosity of all things black business related and I would soon come to learn about Black Wall Street, Madam CJ Walker, Atlanta’s own Auburn Avenue, great minds like Reginald Lewis, Herman J Russell and several other little-known business tycoons. Naturally, when studying business you learn about our banking system and while I don’t consider myself an expert on corporate finance, economics, political science or even personal finance I am literate and guided by a moral compass. Herein lies my beef with banks.
While the US government subsidized the building of suburbs around the country from the ground up in the 1950s and 60s, the mortgage/banking industry gave millions of loans to White Americans as a means to provide a stable, good quality of life. However, if you were a Black American, the chances of you getting a home loan was slim to none. This meant that blacks were essentially locked out of a massive planned economic boom, unable to capitalize on the appreciation of real estate, unable to pass generational wealth onto their children; all of which contributed mightily to the shameful gaps we see in black wealth today compared to their white counterparts. Out of necessity, Blacks had no choice but to start their own businesses, neighborhoods, schools and even…banks.
Fast forward 60 + years and there are now multiple national and regional black owned and operated banks. Yet, relative to other big banks, the “health” of black banks is fading.
Think about that. The big banks who gambled with American dollars leading to a near collapse of our country’s economic system in 2008, bargained for a bailout and still paid bonuses to their executives are doing fine. The big banks who collaborate with foreign governments and criminal enterprises through shell companies while poor people are sent to war or jailed for petty drug possession are doing fine. The big banks who built toxic work cultures incentivizing employees to create false accounts without customer consent are doing just fine. Black banks…not so much, according to Mehrsa Baradaran, UGA’s Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives, Associate Professor of Law and author of The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.
In a sense, she describes the appeal of black banks as a pipe-dream. Not in a condescending way, but more as a “theory” that has inherent flaws rooted in the economic fragility of it’s primary customer; black folk. The promise is that a beleaguered community, having been left out of the dominant banking industry, could pool its resources and collectively lift itself out of poverty” says Baradaran. Given the nature of our financial system, her argument is that an isolated approach with a focus on solely black people is ultimately a veil given all financial pipes ultimately flow outward from black communities. She’s not the only one that holds this point of view. And while I agree with her questioning and evidence-based argument, I am also keenly aware of the alternative.
When Mrs r & R and I walked into a Wells Fargo branch to combine our accounts a few years ago, we didn’t know that while the office manager was fulfilling our simple request, he was also signing us up for two credit cards that we explicitly said we didn’t want. Little did we know that we were part of a much larger problem that would soon get Wells Fargo embroiled in a national scandal and have the hammer dropped on them by the Fed a few days ago.
For our inconvenience, we were rewarded $85 in damages out of a reported $142 million settlement. We took our bullshit $85 and padded our emergency fund at One United bank.
We opened the One United account a few years earlier and haven’t looked back. We don’t earn as much on the interest rate as we’d like but knowing that our money supports black businesses and the idea of black prosperity is a reward in itself. We are of the belief that economic justice is one of the most powerful levers of change in the US. There is no better way to send a clear-cut message to companies that have made a habit of profiting off your oppression. So when my online former bank called me to ask why I closed my account, I was proud to tell them that I was supporting the #bankblack movement and was moving my money. Period. And when One United called to ask how I found them, it was like a meeting a family member I had only ever heard of.
Ladies and Gentleman, there is strength in numbers and there is power in putting your money where your heart is. It’s time more of us evolve our tactics to driving sustainable change and so this February, in honor of Black History Month I hope you will consider opening an account at any of the banks listed here. You don’t have to be Black to read this blog and you don’t have to be Black to support this movement. Put your money where your heart and mind is.