Banking on Racism

by A’Jamal-Rashad Byndon
NFP Board Member 

We recently received a phone call from an official of our bank (Great Western Bank) at our home. He talked with my wife about a recent cashier’s check that we’d purchased at the bank for payment for replacing the roof on our home. The roof was replaced in October 2016. The contractor had asked that I pay him with a cashier’s check.

The conversation with my wife and the banker was about whether we knew the contractor who had a Spanish first and last name. She told this banker that she knew the contractor and that she was not home when I paid him for replacing the roof. She directed him to talk with me about it. When initially talking with this banker about the transaction, I thought there was something wrong with the cashier check. He assured me that was not the problem. He said the Spanish-named contactor had a common name and asked if I knew him. I told him that he had replaced our roof about five years ago, and this was my second time doing business with him.

As the conversation continued, the banker proceeded to ask me a series of questions until, becoming angry at his repeated, sometimes thinly veiled racial insults, I finally told him my financial transactions were none of his business and that he was racial profiling the contractor. He implied during the call that we were engaged in illegal drug dealing or that I was a terrorist because of my Moslem name. I told him that I found it inherently wrong for him to contact me. In his arrogant defense, he told me that he was under “government compliance” and had to talk with me about this check. There are individuals who—because of their names—are on a government watch list and the banking industry is keeping under suspicion or even surveillance. Many are aware of the ‘no-fly’ listing, but banking? What is next?

A number of questions and concerns immediately arose for me from this encounter with my banker. One could ask:

1. When did it become the policy for any bank to call customers with ‘special names’ asking them about financial transactions?

2. In light of all of the corruption and malfeasance at Wells Fargo Bank, are other lending institutions carrying water for an illegal fishing expedition on the U.S. government’s behalf?

3. We found out a few months ago that Yahoo was scanning the emails of millions of its users without their knowledge for the federal government. At what point should corporations alert their customers when they are being strong-armed by government officials?

Granted, there are laws that require banks to report financial cash transactions around the designated amount of $10,000. Nevertheless, my cashier’s check amount was not near that amount and it was not a cash transaction. When I purchased it, the bank teller asked me for an explanation to add to the notation space on the check. I told her to note that it was for the roof replacement. By the way, at least ten homes on our block have had their roofs replaced within the past few months from the storm damage this last May. Do you think that any of them got a phone call from their banks?

4. I have been a customer with Great Western Bank for over 20 years. The bank had previous owners, and we remained with the bank in spite of the incompetence of the bank officials not allowing our ATM card to be utilized when we made an international trip to both Botswana and South Africa in May and June of this year. We had notified bank officials on two occasions about this trip, and after we got over there, found ourselves unable to withdraw funds from our checking account. Is there greater racial profiling being developed by Great Western Bank?

Over the years, the newspapers have reported on two occasions where Latino and African American customers had been discriminated against by Wells Fargo Bank. The bank had to pay millions of dollars in fines to the federal government because of their discriminatory practices of charging higher interest to people of color as compared to white customers with equal credit scores. This serves to illustrate another pet peeve of mine. The auto insurance industry charges higher rates to customers with poor credit reports, in spite of the fact that their product (an insurance policy) is ‘pay-as-you-go.’ In other words, the insurance industry does not ‘loan’ its customers anything. So why are they using credit reports when they are not offering credit to their customers?

I wrote a series of letters about the bank officer conversation to both government and bank executives. It was predictable that one of the replies was apologetic and another was defensive—because these financial institutions do not understand that with cultural humility comes real contact with people of color. Fifty years after the Civil Rights movement, it is way past time for corporations to be trying to defend discriminatory behavior.

With America becoming ever more diverse and more and more of our residents seeking to gain justice, the private sector must not be permitted to do business in ways that run counter to the public’s better interests. Legally, we need both stronger oversight from government. And personally we need to be mindful to treat diverse populations (particularly those with ‘strange-sounding names’) with the same respect we show to those who came from Europe. This is common courtesy.

Need I say more?

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