Why #BankBlack is Betraying the Black Freedom Struggle

BoardofDirectors
Board of Directors of the black-owned Citizens Trust Bank

Recently the #BankBlack hashtag has invaded social media outlets. Advocates believe that by transferring money and banking relationships to financial institutions owned by black people that some level of ‘economic empowerment’ or ‘community development’ is destined to follow. Killer MikeT.I., and Solange are supporting it. Ben Jealous’s non-profit BMe Community recently moved one million dollars to the largest black-owned bank in America, OneUnited Bank.

The logic here is that black capitalists are supposedly better stewards of “their” communities than white capitalists. Consequently, any properly woke black person should bank with a black-owned bank rather than Wells Fargo, Citibank, or any of the other Wall Street criminal cartels with demonstrably dismal civil rights records.

This may sound convincing on the surface. After all, a black-owned bank can’t possibly be any worse than supporting one of the big banks that caused the 2008 meltdown, right? So what’s the harm? A lot, as it turns out. The fatal flaw in this line of thinking is both glaring and fundamental: a black-owned bank is a for-profit bank. The level of harm that follows from this simple corporate structure makes all the difference in the world between a truly revolutionary, transformational act and a foolish reinforcement of the very system that #BankBlack should ultimately be trying to topple.

To begin with, capitalism is a racist idea. At the very least it is a racist historical development.  Determining precisely how racism functions. Racism should be understood, primarily, by its effects on black people rather than any measure of intent or ideological predisposition. In this light, capitalism is a classic, professedly race-neutral, act of racism. Capitalism, after all, is built upon the assumption that those with capital shall rule the world.  They are enjoined to do so by exploiting the labor of those who are forced to sell or rent their labor to survive.

Historically, capitalism is a system rooted in slavery that has been trying to replicate its relationships ever since. Revolutionary black people know this. But as popular black nationalist sentiments bubble to the surface in response to #BlackLivesMatter, the temptation to play small-ball and compromise with the very forces that produced black poverty is insidious. But there are no quick fixes. There are only lasting struggles.

Cornel West identified this key paradox in black nationalist politics back in 1982 where he exposed black nationalists/capitalists as a petite bourgeoisie cynically profiting from racial segregation by promoting a very conservative brand of black capitalist self-help respectability politics. They continue to do so while laughing all the way to the bank. In this way #BankBlack is a deeply conservative, not a radical, movement. West was building on the much earlier work of E. Franklin Frazier who made a similar observation in his 1957 classic Black Bourgeoisie.

Both West and Frazier remind us that class distinctions matter and “who” questions are more important than “what” questions. The barbershop that Michael Phelps visited in Atlanta is quite different than the multimillionaire black shareholders who own OneUnited Bank. Most black “small business owners,” like my incredibly hard working brother-in-law who owns Charlotte’s Headlines Barbershop, are really just self-employed workers who are trying to live outside of the corporate power structure.

Kevin Cohee mugshot
Kevin Cohee’s mugshot

OneBank United’s CEO, Kevin Cohee, on the other hand, lived in a six-million-dollar oceanfront mansion, unlawfully paid for through a corporate expense account, where he cheated on his wife and was arrested for drug possession and sexual assault. He’s still the CEO. Perhaps the heavy campaign contributions that Cohee and other OneBank executives paid to fellow shareholder Maxine Waters finally paid dividends when the Congresswoman unethically organized their TARP bailout package while neglecting to disclose that she and her husband were major shareholders (i.e. profiteers). Black Wall Street and their politicians play the same crooked games as white Wall Street and their politicians, just with a few less zeros in the ledger book.

But Cohee and Waters are not anomalies. They are capitalism’s ideals. But rent seeking and profit making on other people’s money is still intrinsically criminal. The Bible says soThe Holy Qur’an says say so.  Karl Marx said so. Yet the system of debt and plunder continues.

The only choice for a truly revolutionary black banker or bank customer is to insist that all black-owned banks immediately transition into not-for-profit credit unions.  In one sense credit unions are owned by the community itself through its members (i.e. customers).

More accurately, however, credit unions are not owned by anyone. There are no shareholders. Everyone (no matter how much money they have on deposit) gets one vote on how the credit union is run. Any operational profit beyond covering overhead, emergency reserves, and the other costs of doing business can be redistributed to members in the form of lower interest rates on loans, higher interest rates on deposits, or member-decided-upon charitable causes.

Instead of falling victim to the emotional extortion racket that demands working class black people “put their money where their mouth is,” let’s demand that black bank executives, wealthy black shareholders, and black politicians put their money where their mouth is. If black-owned bank executives and shareholders really cared about communities, then they would turn their organizations over to those communities. They would re-write their corporate charters, apply to become not-for-profit credit unions, and put all the money into the community. Until then, BankOne, Citizens Trust Bank, and every other for-profit black-owned bank should not be supported but boycotted–just as for-profit white-owned banks should not be supported but boycotted.


Guy Emerson Mount is currently the Bessie Pierce Prize Preceptor in 19th Century American History at the University of Chicago. His proposed dissertation, “The Last Reconstruction: Race, Nation, and Empire During the Black Colonization to the Philippines,” will examine the relationship between black emancipation and the birth of American overseas empire. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.


Comments on “Why #BankBlack is Betraying the Black Freedom Struggle

  • This is a very thoughtful piece. Beyond credit unions, what other forms of economic organization in black communities can contribute to financial independence?

    • Cooperatives (worker and member owned businesses) are being pursued around the country by organizers as forms of building community wealth in black communities. Jessica Gordon Nembhard has done pioneering research into this with her book Collective Courage: http://www.geo.coop/collectivecourage

      An example of an actually existing cooperative meeting unmet community needs is the Renaissance Community Co-op in Greensboro, NC, which was formed by its community to provide a grocery store where other capitalist stores would not establish themselves: https://renaissancecoop.com/

  • Excellent critique! Now, though the demand has symbolic pwoer, I would not hold my breath for the bankers to transform their assets into credit unions. In the racialized logic of class conflict, which is very well spelled out here, the great majority of the bourgeoisie–black, white, Latinx, it doesn’t matter–will negotiate with the lower classes only when they can make a profit.

    • I have more hope that black owned banks can be pressured by their customers to become not-for-profits than I do for white-owned banks. The social mission is already there (at least rhetorically). You are absolutely right, however, that all for-profit banks will ignore the true long-term needs of the working class until that working class organizes, boycotts, and divests to demand change.

  • Interesting piece. I think one of the salient points that you also raised is that “black-owned banks” no longer, if they ever did at all, operate from the standpoint of using the financial institution to actively challenge policies and practices that ultimately negatively impact communities of color. I would argue that this hasn’t always been the case, even within the structures of capitalism. The ones that have survived do not serve black economic interests, rather operate from the same framework as all others. What you’ve also hinted at is something that gets lost in the these conversations is about financial literacy and your point about an investment in credit unions underscores this point. Thanks for the insights.

    • I think you are right and that Adam Green in his excellent book “Selling the Race” would agree as well. The rhetoric of racial uplift remains but most black institutions sold out the black working class a long time ago. Anti-racism and profit seeking are deeply problematic bedfellows that almost always part ways at some point. This is why new grassroots efforts to sidestep long standing black churches, civil rights organizations, etc. is so promising. The issue, as you mention, is that such projects are long-term, hard work, and require literacy in so many domains that pulling them off will be a major struggle. But now is the time for thinking and educating one another on the issues that matter.

  • This is a superbly reasoned essay. Clearly, the purpose of profit seeking businesses is to extract wealth from customers & workers and others. W.E.B. Du Bois, in the early 1930s, failed to see this distinction, when in the face of the Great Depression, he took up advocating Black economic autonomy. The Depression was a particularly inopportune for that goal, but at least with Du Bois, he was seeking, however desperately, to elevate the Black masses. In contrast, as this blog post shows, today’s BankBlack proponents are pursuing their own enrichment, the masses be damned. Thank you for this piece!

    • Black nationalism/capitalism/Marxism is a strange nexus where contradictions and paradoxes abound. But Du Bois was a socialist as early as 1911 and was really a pragmatist more than anything else. I would classify him, primarily, as one trying to survive capitalism not support it. His elitism and bourgeoisie leanings (evident in his Talented Tenth ideas) were pretty well purged by the time he wrote Black Reconstruction in 1935. At the very least, his nationalist economic visions bear little resemblance to the plundering profit seeking of today’s black capitalist/nationalists.

  • Great and much needed analysis!

  • Awesome piece. Keep harping on socialist alternatives to racist, capitalist ideals.

    Would love to see more pieces about the history of Black folks and cooperatives as well as lending circles/microfinance.

  • I’m fascinated by the distinction between Black capitalists and self-employed workers. Would love to see more about this topic.

    • Great question! Please see below in my reply to Anthony.

  • #BankBlack is radical not because it’s supposed to be anti-capitalist but because it’s ethnocentric in a superficially post-racial society. It’s a symbolic movement in the right direction, i.e. cooperative economics.

    While I agree that supporting the credit union system is superior in principle, and while I agree with the progressive critiques of capitalism in principle as well, I don’t believe that labeling the movement as being a betrayal to Black interests is at all appropriate. This does absolutely nothing but divide us when we need to be strategically fighting the economic battle on all fronts.

    I think it’s ivory tower pride that grounds the idea of Black capitalists being exploiters of the race. From a Marxian perspective, yes, the capitalist mode of production is inherently exploitative. However that’s not the intention of every Black capitalist. When you live in a capitalist economy, it’s seen as the only viable way to survive. It’s simply seen as the most pragmatic course of action given our place in time and space.

    I also dislike the ideological purism we’re finding in the Black community. We have more allegiance to our preferred ideological label – e.g. capitalist, socialist, nationalist, pan-afrikanist, etc. – than we do to a common vision of achieved by any means necessary.

    I simply do not appreciate the tone of this article, despite my ideological agreements with the author on most of the points. To say that it’s a “betrayal” strikes me as incredibly hyperbolic at best and flat out naive at worst. It made me instantly want to disengage with you.

    • Thanks for reading so closely and for your thoughtful comments. In many ways what you are asking for is the same thing that (L. Danielle) above is asking for–a firm line between a big bad capitalist and a small black shopkeeper just trying to get by. I agree this line is fuzzy at best but I tried to make this distinction in the article by comparing my brother-in-law (who I love deeply and I think does it right) to the CEO of OneUnited (who I do not respect and think does it wrong). I also discussed this a bit on Twitter with Shawn Leigh Alexander and The Black History Heroes blog here https://twitter.com/S_L_Alexander/status/770810715221401600 One of the things I said which does not show up there is “My shorthand: Your’re a ‘business owner’ (i.e.capitalist) when your business runs without your labor.” In other words, when evaluating the small business it is important to distinguish between a sole proprietorship (or a de facto ‘co-op’) and a hierarchical money-over-everything venture run by absentee owners with often exploitative working conditions. Intersectionality demands that we see all systems of domination together and not table one (class) to focus exclusively on another (race). Admittedly, the results can often be messy and hard to navigate (as in this case) but anything less than identifying the best possible option means that one is not valuing black lives enough to put in the hard work and demand it all.

  • First of all, capitalism isn’t rooted in slavery. The architect of free market capitalism is Adam Smith along with his book the “Wealth of Nations” written in 1776 (the same year as the revolutionary war). Slavery is a much older institutions that has been in existence under every type of economic system since the dawn of civilization. Smith was totally against slavery because it produced the exact opposite results that he believed the free market would produce and he was right. Which is why the free-states of the North flourished, while the slave-states of the South lagged behind all the way to the mid-twentieth century.

    I agree with you that Black-owned banks aren’t necessarily the best stewards of the Black dollar. However, its not because they are for-profit. It is due to bad business practices that ends up with them being saddled with bad debt. Not to mention that their higher-ups keep stealing money. Credit Unions are good financial institutions for storing savings. However, because they usually work with smaller capital, they are ultra-conservative with who they loan to. So good luck trying to get a small business loan with them. People may no like profits, but they are one of the best incentives to work and to give back to the community.

    There is no perfect system, but capitalism produces the best results. Even for African Americans. But you gotta know how to play the game and stop playing the blame game. That’s our biggest problem. We want life to come to us easy and start bitchin’ when things get too rough.

    • Adam Smith was a theorist. Capitalism is not an abstract ideology but a tangible system of organizing global wealth distribution that was built, sustained, and expanded through New World slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade. This historical evidence for this is simply overwhelming. I cited a very small sampling of the literature that proves this connection here http://www.aaihs.org/capitalism-and-slavery-reflections-on-the-williams-thesis/ No reasonable person can read the books cited there (especially Blackburn, Holt, Johnson, and I would also ad Jon Levy’s “Freaks of Fortune”) and walk away denying that slavery is the foundation of capitalism. We can (and have) done better than capitalism. Credit unions (while still imperfect for all the reasons you mention) are something we can all agree upon as they offer fewer entanglements with what Johnson accurately describes as ‘slave racial capitalism’. Surviving capitalism is one thing. Supporting it is something else. Either way we must build alternatives as the current model demonstrably reproduces inequality and is not sustainable.

  • Capitalism like money itself is not inherently evil. It’s the way it is used that gives and takes power from people. An organized plan utilizing all the tools capitalism makes available can in all reality free African Americans from the economic downfall that has cratered the community on a local and national level. Here’s an outline where those who have nothing can pull their resources to build economic independence within the neighborhood and those more affluent who can organize and build security and economic freedom for the Black community nation wide.

    LOCAL PLAN

    UTILIZING VOLUNTEERS IN THE COMMUNITY TO CREATE AND MAINTAIN ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE, AND SOCIAL RESTRUCTURING THROUGH NETWORKING, COORDINATING, AND COOPERATION LOCALLY

    1. USE CROWD FUNDING WEBSITE TO ADVERTISE BUSINESS PLAN
    A) Use money to outfit 20 volunteers
    B) Use money to obtain Business Licenses

    2. LICENCES FROM CITY CLERK’S OFFICE
    A) Obtain Direct Seller’s License
    B) Obtain a Public Passenger Vehicle Drivers License
    C) Obtain Extended Hours Establishment License
    D) Obtain Second Hand Dealer License

    3. ASSEMBLE VOLUNTEERS 10 MEN AND 10 WOMEN WITH CARS
    A) Outfit with white T-shirts and blue jeans
    B) Use screen print service for logo and design
    C) Map out geography and logistics set up local grassroots campaigns for strategic territories

    4. PRINT FLYERS AND GO DOOR TO DOOR
    A) Use printing service for advertising flyers
    B) Present pitch at every door to collect unused clothes and can goods pass out flyers
    C) Advertise on crowd funding page

    5. SET UP A BLOCK PARTY
    A) Set up garage sale from clothes collected/cookout with vendors from food collected for the neighborhoods
    B) Advertise a transportation service for local neighborhoods at block party
    C) Put volunteers on payroll

    6. TAKE OUT LOAN FROM BANK
    A) Use 50% of loan for one rental property
    B) Use 50% of loan for one office property

    7. OPEN OFFICE
    A) Lease space in most strategic location for HQ of community services
    B) Use door to door advertising for new office that provides services of: food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and employment
    C) Use online advertising through social media
    D) Obtain bulk food from wholesale warehouse
    E) Obtain bulk clothes from Thrift stores
    F) Obtain rental properties from online postings
    G) Obtain more staff with vehicles through job fairs

    8. REPEAT STEPS IN NEIGHBORHOODS AROUND THE COUNTRY

    NATIONAL PLAN

    UTILIZING ASSETS IN THE COMMUNITY TO CREATE AND MAINTAIN SECURITY, ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE, AND SOCIAL RESTRUCTURING THROUGH NETWORKING, COORDINATING, AND COOPERATION NATIONALLY

    1. CURRENT STATISTICS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY ASSETS NATIONALLY
    A)3 BILLIONAIRES
    B)8 BILLION DOLLAR REAL ESTATE COMPANIES
    C)21 BANKS
    D)105 COLLEGES/UNIVERSITIES
    E)33,000 FARMERS
    F)35,000 MILLIONAIRES
    G)2,000,000 VETS
    H)159 CITIES WITH MAJORITY POPULATION

    2. FORM POLICE UNIONS
    A)SECURITY- STOP MURDEROUS COPS FROM ENTERING COMMUNITY NEIGHBORHOODS AND BLACK ON BLACK CRIME/GANG VIOLENCE
    B)JOB CREATION-EMPLOY VETS FOR POLICE FORCE
    C)SOCIAL RESTRUCTURING-VETS MENTORING YOUTHS AND YOUTHS WITH NO FATHERS

    3. REBUILD INFRASTRUCTURE
    A)SECURITY-HAVE POSITIONS READY FOR NEW GRADUATES TO DESIGN INFRASTRUCTURE/CIVIL ENGINEERING/SERVICES ETC.
    B)JOB CREATION-SHOVEL READY JOBS FOR CONSTRUCTION OF CLEAN WATER SYSTEMS/SCHOOLS/CO OPS ETC.
    C)SOCIAL RESTRUCTURING-ELIMINATE GOVERNMENT HOUSING

    4. CREATE FARMING
    A)SECURITY-FARMERS MAINTAIN ORGANIC GROWN CLEAN FOOD
    B)JOB CREATION-SHOVEL READY JOBS FOR CONSTRUCTION OF URBAN FOOD RESERVOIRS/GROCERY STORES/AGRICULTURE TECH AND EMPLOY FARMERS
    C)SOCIAL RESTRUCTURING-ELIMINATE FOOD STAMPS

    5. UTILIZE BANKS
    A)SECURITY-PROVIDE NON PREDATORY LOANS HOUSING/EDUCATION
    B)JOB CREATION-ESTABLISH MORE BANKS/CREDIT UNIONS/STOCK MARKET
    C)SOCIAL RESTRUCTURING-TRAP THE BLACK DOLLAR WITHIN THE COMMUNITY/ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE AND BUSINESS TRAINING/CREATE INTERNATIONAL TRADE RESOURCES

    6. MONOPOLIZE MEDIA
    A)SECURITY-PROVIDE RAW UNFILTERED PROPAGANDA FREE NEWS
    B)JOB CREATION-EMPLOY ALL TECH PROFESSIONALS/MANUFACTURING/ARTIST
    C)SOCIAL RESTRUCTURING-KILL EXISTING NEGATIVE IMPACT WITHIN ENTERTAINMENT

  • This is so not true,crabs in a barrel why! Did the F.B.l,or the K.K.K. put you up to this,with out financial institutions you can’t build a better community,and what the hell is wrong with a profit!!!!! the black wall street was funded by black banks and investors,the civil rights movement was funded by all financial institutions BLACK and WHITE investors,until black people in economics we will rise up as a people or community where we live,we need to support black financial institutions and businesses you would find to JEWS,Hispanics,Whites or ASIANS arguing about keeping money in their community,african-Americans are the only ethnic group that SPENDS 1 trillion dollars 95% disposable income in other ethnic groups communities and than ask were are the jobs how about were you spent your money is were the jobs are at

  • I work for a credit union think tank called Filene Research Institute where we aim to improve the impact that credit unions have on all members of a community and their financial wellbeing. With grants from Ford Foundation and Visa, we are now working with a number of credit unions across the US and Canada to test the effectiveness and sustainability of programs aimed to close the financial access gaps for minority communities and unbanked populations — programs that help minority small business owners and entrepreneurs get business loans, non-citizens get loans, payday loan alternatives, etc. You might be interested in exploring this work and connecting with our findings as we enter an 18 month pilot testing phase. https://filene.org/incubator/reaching-minority-households

  • I agree 10000000000% percent
    banking black is really not the move to be honest
    but because of folks who are scared to do a real revolution
    ahem
    lol
    then ill say its a step in the right direction
    but capitalism is not the move for black folks. . capitalism is so much more than getting profits.. its at a very high cost…

  • food for thought

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