Black Proprietorship and Crises of Value

Shirley E. Thompson –

9780674970953By shedding historical light on the development and practices of black banking, Mehrsa Baradaran’s excellent and thought-provoking The Color of Money demystifies some fundamental free market myths and strongly cautions against the widespread faith, among policymakers and activists alike, in banking as a means of overcoming long-entrenched and worsening racial disparities in wealth. In this response, I suggest that the history of black banking, even for its many failures, holds a unique perspective on property and its contradictions of value. It also contains a deep lesson about how economic strategies generate and are reinforced by affective practices—and how racist economic laws rested on public feelings of their own. The personal and the structural are closely interlinked.

From the debacle of the Freedmen’s Bank, to the rise of black-owned banks under Jim Crow, to the promotion of “empowerment zones” in more recent times, economically isolated black communities have consistently been urged to engage in “capitalism without capital.” Because black banks were cordoned off from their mainstream peer institutions, Baradaran shows, they could not effectively tap into the money multiplier effect, the means by which a bank stood on the good credit, financial security, and proprietor status of its patrons and generated value by lending its deposits through the system more broadly. Because black people did not own large stores of property, any wealth accumulated by black banks swiftly left black control as it sought greater prospects elsewhere: “once in the banking system,” Baradaran writes, “money flows towards more money.”

It is difficult to overstate the policy implications of Baradaran’s work. The story she tells of the institutional segregation and siphoning off of black wealth disarms the widely held premise that black poverty derives from some sort of cultural deficiency or a lack of personal financial literacy. By exposing the lure of “for-us, by-us” banking and “community empowerment” as “a decoy,” “an empty promise,” and a faulty basis for banking legislation and activism, she paves the way for a bolder vision and more creative experimentation in attempting to remedy a seemingly intractable racial inequality. Indeed, proposals such Darrick Hamilton’s and William A. Darity Jr.’s endorsement of “baby bonds” and Baradaran’s own call for the return of postal banking flow from such an understanding of the structural impact of racism on US political economy.

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