But when it comes to the treatment of Black people, Wells Fargo has shown itself to be a bank unwilling to move on from some of the worst, racist parts of America’s past.
This week, Reuters revealed comments by Wells Fargo President and CEO Charlie Scharf about the company’s diversity issues during a Zoom call this summer. Scharf made the claim that Wells Fargo has not been able to diversify its workforce adequately because there aren’t enough qualified Black people available to hire. He expressed the same odious sentiment in a companywide memo: “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from.” (After the comments went public, Scharf apologized “for making an insensitive comment reflecting my own unconscious bias” and acknowledged that the company needs to improve.)
It would be hard to find a cleaner example of self-perpetuating systemic racism in action. Nevertheless, Wells Fargo seems to have never had trouble finding pools of Black people to discriminate against and exploit. Just last month, the bank paid $7.8 million to settle Labor Department allegations of hiring discrimination against Black workers and women. In 2012, it paid $175 million to settle a Justice Department case over allegations it was charging Blacks and Latinos higher fees and mortgage rates compared to Whites with similar credit. And recall that in February, the bank agreed to pay $3 billion to settle charges that it pressured workers to open fake accounts without customers’ knowledge.
Imagine if all this money and effort had instead gone not only into recruiting and hiring Black people, but also toward helping Black people build wealth. Racism is not just a hell of a hard-to-kick drug, it’s an expensive one to boot.
With each story about abuses by Wells Fargo, I knew I needed to leave — that I was in a relationship with a bank that was causing harm to people who looked like me. But for some reason I stayed. Maybe it was that emotional connection to the first bank I ever had. Maybe it was just garden-variety inertia. Maybe it’s the same for so many others who do business with deep-pocketed institutions that mistreat people and otherwise seem to break rules with a sense of impunity — knowing that they can always drop millions on settlements and PR campaigns if they run into trouble.
This year, systemic racism is under a microscope as never before. The killing of George Floyd has motivated people around the world to march against racism and police brutality. The fresh outrage of the failure to hold Breonna Taylor’s killers to account has shown how egregiously the U.S. justice system fails Black people. The coronavirus outbreak has, one hopes, awakened the public to the life-and-death consequences of medical racism and the inequalities of America’s health-care system.
But the financial racism and discrimination that Wells Fargo has trafficked in is also very much a part of the systemic racism that harms Black Americans. In fact, trafficking in Black bodies is part of the root history of many American financial institutions — including precursors to one absorbed by Wells Fargo — that held slaves, sold insurance on them and accepted them as collateral.
A few weeks ago, athletes demonstrated their power of protest by refusing to play after Kenosha, Wis., police shot a black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back. Bank account owners also have power. This moment of racial reckoning has meant that more people have become conscious of supporting Black-owned businesses and institutions, some of which have been hit disproportionately hard by covid-19. The color of Black people’s money is still green. We have choices in where we put our money — and, for many, credit unions, Black-owned banks and online-only institutions are looking much more attractive than traditional brick-and-mortar banks.
Now is the time to divest from any institution living by myths of Black inferiority while actively exploiting Black people for profit. It’s in this spirit that officially, as of this week, I am breaking up with Wells Fargo. And in the words of Taylor Swift, we are never, ever, ever getting back together.