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‘Banking while black’: How cashing a check can be a minefield

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Clarice Middleton in Atlanta on June 5, 2020. Middleton was wrongfully accused of fraud by bank employees while trying to cash a check at a Wells Fargo in Atlanta.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Clarice Middleton in Atlanta on June 5, 2020. Middleton was wrongfully accused of fraud by bank employees while trying to cash a check at a Wells Fargo in Atlanta.

Clarice Middleton shook with fear as she stood on the sidewalk outside a Wells Fargo branch in Atlanta one December morning in 2018. Moments earlier, she had tried to cash a $200 check, only to be accused of fraud by three branch employees, who then called 911.

Middleton, who is black, remembers thinking, “I don’t want to die.”

For many black Americans, going to the bank can be a fraught experience. Something as simple as trying to cash a check or open a bank account can lead to suspicious employees summoning the police, causing anxiety and fear — and sometimes even physical danger — for the accused customers.

There is no data on how frequently police are called on customers who are making legitimate everyday transactions. The phenomenon has its own social media hashtag: #BankingWhileBlack.

Most people who experience an episode of racial profiling don’t report it, lawyers say. Some find it easier to engage in private settlement negotiations. The few who sue — as Middleton did — are unlikely to win in court because of loopholes in the law. Now, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which set off nationwide protests against systemic racism, is prompting more people to speak up.

Middleton had gone to the Wells Fargo branch in Druid Hills, a wealthy, mostly white neighborhood in Atlanta, to cash a refund for a security deposit from a real estate company that had an account with the bank. Three bank employees examined the check and her identification but refused to look at the additional proof Middleton offered. They declared the check fraudulent, and one employee called the police, according to her lawsuit.

When an officer arrived, Middleton showed him her identification and the check stub. As a former bank teller, she knew that would be proof enough that her check was authentic. The officer left without taking action. The Wells Fargo employees asked Middleton whether she still wanted to cash the check.

“I said yes, because they had written all over the back of the check,” said Middleton, who sued Wells Fargo last year for racial discrimination and defamation and sought an unspecified amount of damages.

Mary Eshet, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said Middleton had begun yelling “abusive and profane language” at the employees when she saw her ID being scanned.

“Employees tried to address Ms. Middleton’s concerns by explaining our policies, but Ms. Middleton continued to yell profane language,” Eshet said. “She was asked to leave the branch multiple times and refused, so our employees followed their processes to engage law enforcement.” She added that the bank “appreciates the sensitivities of engaging law enforcement and the importance of continually reviewing our training, policies and procedures.”

Middleton’s lawyer, Yechezkel Rodal, said her client had not used profanity. “Wells Fargo is in possession of the video surveillance showing exactly what happened in the branch that morning,” he said. “The video will not support Wells Fargo’s lies.”

The protests also pushed Benndrick Watson into action.

Last spring, Watson was driven out of a Wells Fargo branch in Westchase, a wealthy neighborhood near Tampa, Florida, by what the branch manager described as a “slip of the tongue.”

Watson, who was already a bank customer with a personal checking account, went to the branch to open a business account for his law firm.

A banker did a corporate records search and found Watson’s other business, a record label. Watson tried to direct the employee to the records for his law firm instead.

Eventually, the branch manager got involved. He sat down across from Watson and watched him enter information, including his Social Security number, into a keypad.

Then, the man uttered the N-word.

“He just said it — clear as day, no mistake,” Watson said. “My jaw just dropped. I dropped the pen. There was silence. He kind of looked at me. I said, ‘Did you really just say that?’”

Watson said the man had immediately begun to protest, saying that he had not meant to use the word and that he was deeply sorry. Watson did not buy it. He got up and left. The manager followed him to his car, apologizing profusely, and resigned from the bank shortly afterward.

“I felt like I had a knife in my gut,” Watson said. “It’s a sickening word.”

Watson turned to Rodal, who wrote to Wells Fargo seeking an apology. The bank’s regional president, Steve Schultz, responded. “It seems that the utterance of the offensive term was unintentional,” Schultz wrote, but said the bank had taken “corrective action” against the branch manager anyway, without providing details. Eshet of Wells Fargo said the manager was deemed ineligible for any job with the bank.

Watson sued Wells Fargo in federal court in Florida on June 4.

In a statement, Eshet said, “We deeply apologize to Mr. Watson. There’s no excuse for it, and while we took action to address the matter, it cannot undo what happened and how he felt. We are very sorry.”

The problem is hardly confined to Wells Fargo. Last June, Robyn Murphy, a public relations consultant in Maryland, took her 18-year-old son, Jason, to a Bank of America branch in Owings Mills, Maryland, to open a joint savings account. Murphy, a 20-year customer of the bank, said she was shocked when an employee refused to proceed after a computer program flagged her son’s Social Security number as fraudulent.

Murphy protested: Her son had his own checking account at the bank. His Social Security number had already been used there without issue. The Murphys are black. Jason Murphy, his mother said, is 6-foot-9.

“For all I know, it’s fraud,” the employee told them. Robyn Murphy said he had asked them to come back with Jason Murphy’s Social Security card. When Jason Murphy stood up, the employee yelled, “Don’t get up!”

After Robyn Murphy contacted a senior vice president she knew at the bank, other officials apologized and offered to open the branch whenever it was convenient for the Murphys to return and complete the transaction — which they did.

“It weighed on us very heavily for a long time,” Robyn Murphy said.

“We understand the client did not feel she and her son were treated properly in this interaction with our team, and we regret that,” Bill Halldin, a Bank of America spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “These alerts are designed to protect our clients from fraud and misuse of their personal information.” He declined to comment on what, if any, action the bank had taken against the employee.

Banks say they reject racism of any sort. The country’s four largest banks by asset size — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup — all require branch employees to complete annual diversity training, according to the banks’ representatives.

Still, banks have not managed to weed out discrimination. The New York Times reported in December that a JPMorgan Chase employee had described a customer as being “from Section 8” and therefore undeserving of service. The bank has since said it would seek to increase its sensitivity to issues surrounding race.

But little is mandated by law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 lists specific businesses that may not treat black customers differently: movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, and performance and sports venues. Federal courts have held that because the law identifies the kinds of businesses to which it applies, those not on the list, such as banks, cannot be held to it. That loophole makes it hard for victims of racial profiling to win in court.

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