“The Bank in Black” Still Exists, Even If You’re Famous


Malia Lazu

“Banking While Black” is a trend we seem to be hearing more about as conversations about equity grow. Statistics show the lack of relationships banks have with black people. Nearly half of black families are underbanked, compared to 19% of white families, black businesses had no access to PPP loans and continue to be denied loans at higher rates of up to 80% according to some studies.

In the latest from Banking While Black, ‘Black Panther’ director Ryan Coogler was arrested at a Bank of America branch in Atlanta while attempting to withdraw $12,000. Coogler wrote a note on a deposit slip asking the cashier to count the money in another room because he was “trying to be discreet.” An alert went off for the cashier as she attempted the transaction and the cashier and her manager believed Coogler was trying to rob or rip off the bank and called the police. Police detained and handcuffed Coogler until the mistake was realized.

There is so much to unpack in this incident. But let me start here. Ryan Coogler is an example of black exceptionalism. A record-breaking and award-winning filmmaker. Which probably helped him get out of the handcuffs once they checked who he was. But what if he was an unnamed black man who just hoped to be discreet with his money? Would the police have looked into this story of theft and accused him of letting the courts solve the problem? Should he have to prove he wasn’t robbing the bank and didn’t want anyone to know he was about to walk away with $12,000? If Ryan Coogler was a random “Ryan”, this action could have ruined this man’s life.

The story has a long impact

Bank of America made bold promises to end racism, especially after having to pay over $300 million in fines for discrimination in 2011. But the intention did not impact the cultivation of their branches. Some journalists made a point of saying that the cashier was black. They don’t mention the name of her manager who insisted she call the police, so I guess their race isn’t helpful to the situation. This mention adds insult to injury as it attempts to temper the story by removing the element of race. It’s a way of thinking about white privilege. The color of the cashier doesn’t matter any more than the color of the cop. It’s the color of the victim that counts.

Beyond the danger black people can so easily find themselves in when the police are called, banks need to stop and realize their flawed assumptions about who is a “worthy customer” within their 21st century customer base. We work with our banking customers on the idea of ​​a “dignified bank for all”. Whether someone is cashing a check or closing a mortgage, they should be considered a valued customer. A worthy bank rests on three pillars.

Recognize the history of banks that have taken advantage of black people. The bank as black improves. As we have learned historically, banks have been exposing black communities, creating predatory practices that lead to stealing black wealth for hundreds of years. If staff don’t understand that black customers walk into a bank with this truthful account, they won’t understand why black people are so quick to assume the bank is trying to take advantage of them.

Question Who is a “good customer”

Doing a cultural customer service audit is an important first step. Review the policies and procedures available to cashiers. Do they enhance opportunities for your cashiers to build relationships with customers? Or are they completely transactional while ignoring the realities of customers’ lives. Wanting to be discreet about $12,000 shouldn’t have aroused suspicion. This actually sounds like a reasonable request from a customer. Processes become culture, so training and incentivizing culture becomes a critical next step.

Any customer service training should have an anchor in cultural and behavioral training. We work with our customers to help develop a culture that takes into account how cashiers and other frontline workers view “good and bad customers.” When I hosted a focus group with people who use check cashing and asked them why they liked check cashing, the responses were a little surprising. A majority of people said they feel belittled by banks and hidden fees make them hard to trust. They preferred to pay exorbitant fees up front to avoid feelings of judgment and surprise fees. Focusing training on how others perceive banks is key to providing fair customer service.

Bank CEOs understand the role that branches play. Cashiers are the guardians of customers’ money. The control they have over those dollars is so much greater than their pay scale suggests. Banks must take this responsibility seriously, which includes providing people with dignified access to their money. Bank of America may want to take a Starbucks moment and remind its branches that the new brand is trying to build one dedicated to equity.

Malia Lazu is a Lecturer in the Technology Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management Group at MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of the Lazu Group, and former Eastern Massachusetts Regional President and Experience Leader and culture at Berkshire Bank.