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 Mike, T.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.
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 so. The 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.