Last year, amid protests over the murder of George Floyd, financial firms pledged billions of dollars to programs aimed at racial equity, including efforts to diversify their hiring and invest in Black businesses. And last month, Bank of America, BlackRock and Goldman Sachs were among hundreds of businesses and executives who signed a public letter opposing laws that would restrict voting across the country, especially for minority voters.
But in their recent commitments to racial justice, financial institutions have mostly mimicked others instead of pulling on the unique levers of power that they control.
Banks determine, manage and mitigate the risk of lending. Along with asset managers, they can stoke a market for risky debts or shun borrowers and projects they deem undesirable.
This power has been harnessed by social movements in the past, though not often.
During the civil rights movement, for example, extraordinary efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People pushed Childs Securities, a dealer of government bonds, to boycott Alabama’s municipal bonds in 1965. Roy Wilkins, the executive director of the N.A.A.C.P. at the time, said this “type of economic sanction” might trigger “long-overdue reforms.”
Civil rights activists rejected the suggestion that financiers were neutral intermediaries between abstract borrowers and investors. By purchasing the bonds of Southern states bent on segregation and underwriting Jim Crow infrastructure, the nation’s banks not only had buttressed these regimes, they had done so despite major judicial watersheds, most notably Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.