Follow the Money: How the Big Banks Fund Systemic Racism

I always tell people: If you want to understand structural racism, study the big banks. Follow the money.

The whole story is there: The original wealth that built the big banks goes all the way back to the theft of labor by enslavers and theft of land by colonizers. That should come as no surprise to any student of history. This whole country was built on stolen land and labor -- a dynamic which continues today through the hyperexploitation of low-wage workers. 

And over centuries, institutions like the big banks help to enact structural racism by codifying racist individual attitudes into policies that impact people at a mass scale. You might have read about the practice by banks of “redlining” certain neighborhoods to keep Black, Indigenous, and people of color out. 

But redlining never really went away -- it just evolved, like the new Jim Crow. Banks like Chase have been found to continue racist neighborhood-lending practices; a recent investigation in Chicago has led to protests and calls for reparations. The 2008 mortgage crisis, when the big banks targeted Black people for risky subprime mortgages and then stole an entire generation’s worth of wealth from Black communities, is still impacting folks today.

The big banks have poured over $2.7 trillion into financing fossil fuel pollution just since 2016. From funding the pollution that is killing our planet, to funding police terrorism, every element of our racist society can be connected back to decisions made by huge financial institutions motivated only by profit. These institutions shape and touch every element of our lives from birth to death.

And there’s a powerful thing that happens when climate advocates and environmentalists begin to follow the money and understand the root causes of the climate crisis. I’ve seen it firsthand. When you realize that these banks know perfectly well that their pursuit of profit is killing us all, you start to make connections.

You start to realize that a system that prioritizes profit over people’s lives will never lead to good outcomes for human society. 

You start to realize that these banks fund police foundations, and that Wall Street firms profit directly from police brutality.

You start to realize that racist housing policies by these banks are leading to climate segregation in cities across the nation.

You start to realize that these financial institutions are making billions from incarcerating ever-increasing numbers of people in the private prisons they finance -- first among them Black people. 

And then you no longer ask, what does racism have to do with the environment? Why do I need to be an anti-racist to be an anvironmentalist? Because you’ve already seen how systems of racial oppression impact everything and everyone. 

You begin to understand that if the big banks are willing to build private prisons to incarcerate millions of Black Americans for profit, they won’t hesitate to send us all careening toward climate chaos. All of our futures are at stake.

Because at the end of the day, for Bank of America or any other major US financial institution, profit is the only thing that matters. The whole system is flawed, because it prioritizes profit over human lives. 

We’re not going to get through the challenges ahead with that approach. To end the extractive practices that result in carbon pollution and adapt to our already chaotic climate, we need an economy that is sustainable and regenerative. 

We need to stop the extraction. Not just the literal extraction of fossil fuels from the ground, but also the extraction of wealth from workers and the extraction of people from communities in the form of incarceration. We need systems and institutions to govern our economy that value health and well-being over profit. 

As my friends at Movement Generation like to put it -- we need a just transition from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.

It all starts with studying and learning about the world around us. You can begin your study of the financial industry and how big banks are accelerating climate chaos and reinforcing system racism by reading this report on the racism of the financial industry from our allies at Little Sis.

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