by Rob Nichols
Is racism baked into our nation’s systems of justice, health and education, or are there disproportionate correlations between race, poverty and crime? Are people too quick to accuse others of racism, or are those in positions of power too slow to recognize their role in perpetuating racial inequities? Is it fair that I posed these as either/or questions, or is all of the above true?
While issues surrounding racial justice and inequities are demanding the nation’s attention, honest conversations seem too perilous to hold because of the way some frame the debate as binary. But that ignores the vast common and principled ground on which we all stand and distracts from a focus on meaningful solutions.
Bankers are community leaders, which means you run toward a challenge, not away from it. So as fraught as the situation may feel, the American Bankers Association is engaging in an open dialogue of how the banking industry, both as employers and as facilitators of wealth creation, can further the principles everyone agrees on: That all Americans should have a truly equal opportunity to prosper and that economic inclusion is essential to creating such opportunity.
Implicit in this discussion is the belief that we each have a role to play in addressing longstanding inequities. Some may feel the problem lies elsewhere— in another community, city or state—and therefore so must the solution. Others may think they’ve done all they can, to either great or limited effect. But we are an industry that in recent years has developed entirely new ways of banking, and in recent months demonstrated remarkable fortitude and commitment to serving our customers through the pandemic. There is more we can—and must—do to address disparities and promote prosperity for all.
Many banks recognized this long before the pandemic hit and disproportionately harmed Black Americans, and long before the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and others. Some in recent years have built rigorous diversity, equity and inclusion programs that are both inward facing (focused on employees) and external facing (focused on customers, communities and vendors). Some have pioneered new ways to qualify borrowers and bring those who have been marginalized into the banking system. We celebrate them every year with the ABA Foundation’s Community Commitment Awards. Still others have partnered with Minority Depository Institutions and Community Development Financial Institutions to share compliance resources, expertise and more to better enable those institutions to meet the needs of their often underbanked customers.
ABA is tapping the experiences of these banks and leveraging the expertise of our own staff experts on diversity, equity and inclusion to provide others with tools and resources to make a difference at their own institutions. A new peer group for institutions with robust DE&I programs met for the first time in February and is helping us identify leading industry practices in this space that we can share with members. In April, we convened our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advisory Group, which is composed of individuals from banks of all sizes and whose mission is to help us nurture bank DE&I efforts. I was also pleased to announce a strategic partnership this year with the National Bankers Association, the leading trade association for MDIs, to promote the health and well-being of underrepresented communities. And we are collaborating with and promoting MinBanc, which reimburses educational and professional development expenses of MDI bankers.
This is all to say that both ABA and the industry have a strong foundation upon which to build. And build we must. Unacceptable racial disparities in health, wealth, income, education and other measures of opportunity continue to grow—and the pandemic has laid bare these disparities. Proportionately, two and half times more Black Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19 than white Americans.
We cannot shrug our shoulders and declare these inequities someone else’s problem. We cannot fail to engage. We are bankers, we are civic leaders and we must be part of the solution.
Rob Nichols is president and CEO of the American Bankers Association. E-mail Rob Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org.