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Black Money Matters

Recent police shootings have reinvigorated the movement to support black-owned banks

“I know that you’re here today because you’ve had enough.”

Asabi Ifatunji was speaking to the crowd that had gathered this past Saturday in a tent set up outside a OneUnited bank branch in South L.A.

“You’ve had enough of opening up your Facebook page and seeing a young black man dying in front of his girlfriend and his daughter because he complied with a police officer and abides by the law. You’ve had enough of seeing a man held down by two grown police officers, hands can’t move, shot to death at point-blank range. I know you’ve had enough of seeing that, right? Am I the only one?”

He clearly wasn’t. Hundreds of people had come through to open new bank accounts at today’s event, which Ifatunji helped organize. The vibe was somewhere between a cookout and a rally — black-owned food trucks served up burgers and chicken-waffle sandwiches in the parking lot while a comedian emceed a lineup of musicians and speakers. Everyone was there thanks to the #BankBlack movement, sparked 15 days earlier when rapper and activist Killer Mike told the listeners of Atlanta’s Hot 107.9 that, in the wake of the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, they should move their money to Citizens Trust, Atlanta’s black-owned bank.

“We don’t have to burn our city down, but what we can do is go to the bank tomorrow and say, until you as a corporation start to speak on our behalf, I’m talking all my money to Citizen’s Trust,” Killer Mike said. “We have to fight this system with what it understands best: economics.”

After hearing that call, Ifatunji and collaborated with his friend B Dot (a local battle rapper who recently went semi-viral) to form the group Black Money Matters LA to agitate for keeping black money in the community. They reached out to OneUnited — the largest black-owned bank in the country, with about $650 million in assets and an online-first approach — to let them know that they were planning to organize a large group of new customers to come in and enroll at their Crenshaw branch.

In the first days after Killer Mike’s shoutout, the spike in interest had swamped OneUnited’s servers and customer service capabilities — according to the bank, they’d seen an influx of more than 1,000 new accounts per day since. But by the time Black Money Matters LA called, the bank was ready for more. They decided to turn the enrollment drive into a full-fledged event, putting out publicity and setting up arrays of iPads inside the branch to accommodate the crowd of new applicants. And Kevin Cohee and Teri Williams, the married CEO and President of OneUnited, respectively, decided to fly out to speak.

“Four young ladies are at the root of why we’re here today,” Cohee said, “Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.”

Those were the names of the girls killed when Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, in 1963. The Boston-based bank that eventually turned into OneUnited, Unity Bank & Trust, was founded in 1968 as a direct outgrowth of the civil rights movement that those bombings helped galvanize.

Cohee went on to draw an even longer line between the current #BankBlack movement and W.E.B. Du Bois’ Niagara Movement, where the future leader of the NAACP first articulated his belief that there should be a separate, black “group economy” to fight against economic and social discrimination and build capital within the community. Recently, a study from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that between 500,000 and 1 million jobs could be created if higher-income black households directed even 10 percent of their income toward Black-owned businesses.

And just as important, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his final speech before being assassinated (and as Killer Mike echoed in his interview) is the power of economic withdrawal. “The American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than $30 billion a year,” he said. Refusing to spend that money at white companies, and invest it in white banks, could force those institutions to take action for civil rights.

Or, as Cohee put it, “This is capitalism — this is a power game, and you’ve got to be a power player.”

The idea of “banking black,” then, isn’t new, but Teri Williams, the President of OneUnited, said that the bank itself has only returned to emphasizing the political nature of choosing to bank with a black-owned institution in recent years (after a rocky, occasionally scandalous recovery from the 2008 recession), even though they’ve been around since the mid-90s.

“I think in the beginning,” said Williams, “we sort of saw ourselves as being a Black Bank of America. It wasn’t until fairly recently that we realized that’s not our goal — we want to be our authentic selves.” Which meant being, as Williams put it, “unapologetically black,” and unapologetically political.

Williams pointed to a mural that she commissioned for OneUnited’s Miami branch—which includes images of Trayvon Martin, protesters making the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture and a black woman washing the Confederate flag—as a turning point in the bank’s approach. “That was an important moment for us.” The mural is now featured prominently on the bank’s Why OneUnited? page, above exhortations to “stand up and represent” and be “part of the movement to #BankBlack and #BuyBlack.”

As an official Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI, however, OneUnited has geared its financial offerings toward the black community for years. In the past, they’ve waived fees for new loans as a special promotion, pledged to provide mortgages for poor and middle-income people living in their immediate neighborhood and offer a secured credit card for those trying to build back their credit scores, with lower interest rates than cards offered at bigger banks. “We don’t have abusive overdraft programs, we have low minimums to open, we avoid fees. Our mission is to offer affordable financial services and treat people with dignity and respect,” Williams said.

“Any bank could offer these things — they’re not rocket science — but they’re not as profitable as things like prepaid debit cards,” which are often the only option offered by big banks to customers with bad records with consumer reporting agencies like ChexSystems, and charge a variety of fees for things like withdrawing cash. “We’re considered second-class banking citizens; they’re earning a bunch of fees off us,” Williams added.

She has a point— discrimination against black people in the home loan market is well-documented, and big banks nickel-and-dime poor customers with fees for overdrafts and bounced checks (which then snowball into late fees for not paying those fees) to pad their bottom line, pushing many into similarly fee-heavy check cashing services.

So why did it take so long for #BankBlack to take off? “I think people are looking for something positive to do,” Williams said. “We can vote, and that’s going to happen in November, but what can we do today?”

“I think a lot of black folks’ consciousness is at a whole different level, now,” said Lee Bailey, new OneUnited customer, editor of the Electronic Urban Report and a former radio DJ/personality. Bailey, who’d been hearing the arguments for banking with a black-owned institution for years, attributes his decision to switch banks to hearing about the often-cited (but difficult to prove) statistic that a dollar only stays in the black community for six hours (compared to 28 days for the Asian community) before being spent at a non-black-owned business.

Dejané Robinson, another new OneUnited customer, had similar reasons. “I just decided it was important to me economically, as a black American, to have my money circulating within the community. I was thinking about it before, but with everything that’s been happening recently, I just thought it was necessary to do it now.”

But for both Robinson and Bailey (and many of the other customers I spoke with), there was another factor at play: the internet. “I didn’t realize that they had gone digital, and that made a tremendous difference — coming over to this side of town [from his home near Pasadena] just to bank was frankly not that attractive,” Bailey said.

Which, Williams says, is exactly why OneUnited has made the push to become an online bank. “Using our spending power is something that civil rights leaders have been saying for generations. Today, because of technology, we can actually do it.”