Black customers risk being racially profiled on everyday visits to bank branches. Under federal laws, there is little recourse as long as the banks ultimately complete their transactions.
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.
Ms. 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 the 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 Ms. 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.
Ms. 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 Ms. Middleton offered. They declared the check fraudulent, and one employee called the police, according to her lawsuit.
When an officer arrived, Ms. 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 Ms. Middleton whether she still wanted to cash the check.
“I said yes, because they had written all over the back of the check,” said Ms. 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 Ms. 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,” Ms 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.”
Ms. 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.”
Some incidents play out without the involvement of police or courts.
In March 2019, Jabari Bennett wanted to withdraw $6,400 in cash to buy a used Toyota Camry from a dealership in Wilmington, Del. He had just sold his house in Atlanta and moved to Wilmington to live with his mother. Having been a Wells Fargo customer for four years — he had around $70,000 in his account from the sale of his house — Mr. Bennett walked into a nearby branch expecting to be back at the dealership and in his Camry within minutes.
He came away empty-handed and reeling.
First, a teller refused to accept that he was the account holder, questioning his out-of-state driver’s license, he said — even though Mr. Bennett had informed the bank of his new address just two weeks earlier. Then, a branch manager told Mr. Bennett to leave. He left in disbelief, then returned to try to complete the transaction. This time, the manager threatened to call the police. Mr. Bennett left again.
The experience “made me feel like I was nothing,” Mr. Bennett said.
He abandoned the deal on the car. A week later, he moved all his money out of Wells Fargo and then hired Mr. Rodal, who had gained a reputation for representing black customers against the bank after the story of one of his clients went viral in 2018. Mr. Rodal sent Wells Fargo a letter, but negotiations stalled.
Mr. Bennett decided to share his story publicly in light of the recent protests: “I don’t want anybody else to go through what I went through.”
Ms. Eshet, the Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said that branch employees were trained to spot potential fraud, and that the bank had increased security protocols to thwart internet scams involving large transfers of money.
“In this instance, there were enough markers for our team to conduct extra diligence in order to protect the customer and the bank,” she said.
The protests also pushed Benndrick Watson into action.
Last spring, Mr. Watson was driven out of a Wells Fargo branch in Westchase, a wealthy neighborhood near Tampa, Fla., by what the branch manager described as a “slip of the tongue.”
Mr. 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 Mr. Watson’s other business, a record label. Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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?’”
Mr. 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. Mr. 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,” Mr. Watson said. “It’s a sickening word.”
Mr. Watson turned to Mr. 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,” Mr. Schultz wrote, but said the bank had taken “corrective action” against the branch manager anyway, without providing details. Ms. Eshet of Wells Fargo said the manager was deemed ineligible for any job with the bank.
Mr. Watson sued Wells Fargo in federal court in Florida on June 4.
In a statement, Ms. 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, Md., to open a joint savings account. Ms. 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.
Ms. 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. Mr. Murphy, his mother said, is 6-foot-9.
“For all I know, it’s fraud,” the employee told them. Ms. Murphy said he had asked them to come back with Mr. Murphy’s Social Security card. When Mr. Murphy stood up, the employee yelled: “Don’t get up!”
After Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.
There is an additional limitation. In 1866, Congress created new laws to establish rights for black Americans, including one giving them the right to enter into agreements to buy goods or services and have those contracts enforced. Courts have since ruled that the law requires only that service be granted eventually.
In 2012, for instance, a federal appeals court ruled that a Hispanic man who had been turned away by a white cashier at a Target store in Florida did not have a case against Target because he was able to complete his purchases with a different cashier.
That could stymie Ms. Middleton’s case. Wells Fargo is arguing that because she was eventually able to cash her check, a judge should dismiss it.
Ms. Tippett:He talked about how the prophets are always poets, and it’s with poetic language that they rise above the merely political and have something other than merely political impact. He says that the line we all remember of Martin Luther King is actually a line of poetry. “I have a dream” is actually a line of poetry.
Mr. Rampersad:Yes, a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry.
Ms. Tippett:Is it really? It’s a line of Langston Hughes’s poetry? I didn’t know that.
Mr. Rampersad:Well, I think Langston Hughes always believed that, because he had consistently invoked the motif of the dream in his poetry, in his civil rights poetry. So he always felt that Martin Luther King owed him one.
Ms. Tippett:I see.
Mr. Rampersad: Yeah. But that’s another story.
.. Ms. Alexander: Yes, I think of the Dr. Du Bois — that was always how he was referred to in my family. And I think that was very important because he was someone to be respected, that even though African Americans had attained higher education by the time I was a child, I know that I knew he was the first African American to get his PhD from Harvard University, that it was an extraordinary thing to have become educated in the way that he did, so that we ought to give him that title. And later on, I learned, there are a number of African-American elders of a generation for whom only the letters of their names are what we know. “W.E.B.” That was strategic, a way that he could not be called William or Bill, that someone would have to call him “boy” or call him Dr. Du Bois. It forced the issue of his stature. I think that that interested me a great deal. I remember learning that when I was probably a young teenager. I didn’t read The Souls of Black Folk until I was in college. I remember very much reading it for the first time, sophomore year with Professor Michael Cooke in a big survey course on African-American literature. It was a graduate course and, at that time, the only place that Du Bois was taught alongside Booker T. Washington and other greats of the tradition. I remember thinking, “Oh, not only is he a great man, he’s a beautiful writer” — and how that felt like such a gift that these important ideas came forward to us in language that was unforgettable.
Ms. Angelou: As one of the great thinkers. For a black man at that time, to teach and to learn and to study under those circumstances when people were being lynched, what Dr. Du Bois showed is that he had enormous courage. I would encourage young men and women, black and white and Asian and Spanish-speaking and all, to look at Dr. Du Bois and realize that courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving — any of those — without courage.
It’s natural to get defensive, but that only escalates the cycle of aggression.
A couple of years ago I was discussing a study of the habits of great musical composers when an audience member interrupted.
“That’s not true!” he shouted. “You’re totally ignorant — you don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Early in my career, I had let nasty people walk all over me. When a client berated me for my predecessor’s error on an ad, I gave in and offered him a full refund. When a boss threatened to fire me for defending a colleague who was treated poorly, I said nothing. But this time, I was prepared: I had trained as a conflict mediator, worked as a negotiator and become an organizational psychologist.
At some point in your work life, you’ve probably had to interact with a jerk. They’re the people who demean and disrespect you. They might steal credit for your successes, blame you for their failures, invade your privacy or break their promises, or bad-mouth you, scream at you and belittle you. As the organizational psychologist Bob Sutton puts it, they treat you like dirt, and either they don’t know it or they don’t care.
The natural response is to get defensive, but that only escalates the cycle of aggression. Take a classic study in which researchers recorded negotiators with different levels of skill. Average bargainers ended up in three times as many defend-attack spirals as expert negotiators. The experts escaped the heat of the moment and cooled the other person down, too. They calmly commented on their reactions to the other person’s behavior and tested their understanding of what the person was trying to convey.
I had been studying and teaching this evidence for years. Now it was time to practice it. I called a break, walked up to my heckler and said, “You’re welcome to disagree with the data, but I don’t think that’s a respectful way to express your opinion. It’s not how I was trained to have an intellectual debate. Were you?”
I was hoping to start a conversation about the conversation — to redirect the discussion away from the topic and toward some reflection on the tone of the discussion. To my surprise, it worked.
“Well, no …” he stammered, “I just think you’re wrong.” Later, I sent him the data and he sent me an apology.
My heckler was what Dr. Sutton calls a temporary jerk. We’re all capable of those behaviors, and we feel bad about them afterward. Onestudy showed that on days when leaders acted abusively, they ended up feeling less competent and less respected at work — and had more trouble relaxing at home.
But sometimes you’re stuck dealing with a certified jerk, someone who consistently demeans and disrespects others. A few years ago, I had a colleague who had a reputation for yelling at people during meetings. After witnessing it firsthand, I collected my thoughts and called to say I found it unprofessional. My colleague got defensive: “It was necessary to get my point across!”
Research on the psychology of certified jerks reveals that they have a habit of rationalizing aggression. They’ve convinced themselves that they have to act that way to get the results they want. I didn’t know how to respond until recently, when I interviewed Sheila Heen, a conflict mediation expert, for an episode of my WorkLife podcast on office jerks. She suggested finding a way to gently challenge the belief that aggression is necessary: “Really? It was my impression that you were smarter than that, and more creative than that — so I bet you could come up with some other ways to be just as clear without having to actually rip somebody else apart.”
The comedian, author and social commentator explains why he sees our perfect union as “dysfunctional and divided”.
The Reichstag fire was at least a fire. Here, there is smoke and mirrors.
When Trump was in business, his shtick was stiffing contractors. If confronted, he would try some bombast and storm out of meetings, as he did the other day with congressional leaders, ending talks on the partial government shutdown caused by a crisis he has manufactured. His shtick now is stiffing all Americans. The technique is the same: Keep reality at a distance through hyperactive fakery.
.. A manufactured crisis, I said. It’s worth recalling the 5,200 troops ordered to the southern border before the midterm elections to confront the “caravan of migrants.” This was an exercise in manipulative illusion.
Monthly crossings over the southern border have declined in recent years. The number of migrants apprehended has also fallen over the past decade, with a recent tick upward. There is no humanitarian crisis, just as not a single mile of additional wall has been built since Trump took office.
But absent this noise, what does reality offer the president? Robert Mueller, Nancy Pelosi and Michael Cohen, the specters of his insomnia.
.. The essential distinction that Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University, makes is between lies and bull. As he writes, “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”
.. It is a habit “unconstrained by a concern with truth” whose essence is “not of falsity but of fakery.” The addict of bull “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” He is “trying to get away with something.” His “focus is panoramic rather than particular,” and he shuns “the more austere and rigorous demands of lying.”
Frankfurt’s conclusion may be read as an ominous verdict on this president. The bull merchant “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
It has been said that Trump’s extraordinary election victory owed much to his intuitions about the anger in the heartland. There is some truth in this. But his essential intuition was into the readiness of Americans, suspended between the real and the virtual, for a post-truth presidency.
Quinta Jurecic, in an important essay for the Lawfare Blog, set out the dangers inherent in this shift before Trump took office. In the essay, “On Bullshit and the Oath of Office: The ‘LOL Nothing Matters’ Presidency,” she cited Frankfurt and argued that Trump’s “foundational disrespect for meaning and consequence” — that is to say, for reality and the very concept of law — would make it “impossible for Donald Trump to faithfully execute the laws of this nation and the duties of the oath of office and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”
The president’s apparent readiness to “do national emergency,” as he put it, over a manufactured border crisis amounts to a perfect illustration of this danger. The Reichstag fire was at least a fire. Here there is only smoke and mirrors.
I would add one element to the reflections of Frankfurt and Jurecic on bull. There may be something amusing, or at least innocuous, about the bullshit artists encountered in a lifetime. They may be waved away. But in Trump the element of sadistic cruelty in his personality (mocking the disabled, for example), and the sheer gall of his fakery, make of him a malignant, rather than a benign, bullshit artist. He happens to occupy the world’s most powerful office.
Trump cannot help himself, I said. He can’t and won’t. But as citizens, “we have a duty to insist that words have meaning,” as Jurecic writes. If they don’t, neither does the Republic. That’s what the ants told me as I gazed at them, troubled and fixated.
Everyone has a code of conduct, whether explicit or unacknowledged. Nearly halfway into President Trump’s first term—which some people hope and others fear will be his only one—the contours of his code have become pretty clear.
Mr. Trump has a consistent way of judging people. Strong is good, weak is bad. Big is impressive, small is defective: “Little Marco.” Winners are admirable, while losers are contemptible. A corollary is that there is neither dishonorable victory nor honorable defeat, which is why Mr. Trump poured scorn during his candidacy on John McCain for having been captured—never mind McCain’s heroic conduct as a prisoner of war.Individuals are either attractive or unattractive. If they don’t look good, it doesn’t much matter what they say or do. Appearance is reality: Plato’s Cave inverted. This is why Mr. Trump’s TV stardom mattered more than his checkered business career.
Finally, people are either loyal or disloyal. Loyalty in this case means their willingness to defend Mr. Trump, whatever the cost to their own interests or reputation. In this vein, Mr. Trump favorably compared former Attorney General Eric Holder’s unswerving support for President Obama with Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe.
This brings us to the next feature of Mr. Trump’s personal code—his distinctive understanding of how the world works. Here’s how it goes.
With the possible exception of family, all relationships are at bottom transactional. Every man has a price, and so does every woman.
There’s money, and then everything else. Money and morals are unrelated. Even if a Saudi leader ordered the assassination and dismemberment of a prominent dissident, this is no reason to halt arms sales to the monarchy. If American firms don’t get the contracts, someone else will. Why should we be chumps? If promoting democracy or simple decency costs money, what’s the point?
The core of human existence is competition, not cooperation. The world is zero-sum: If I win, someone else must lose. I can either bend another to my will or yield to his.
The division between friends and enemies is fundamental. We should do as much good as we can to our friends, and as much harm to our enemies.
This brings us to President Trump’s handbook of tactics we should employ to achieve our goals:
Rule 1: The end always justifies the means. Asked whether he had spoken disrespectfully about Christine Blasey Ford, he said, “I’m not going to get into it, because we won. It doesn’t matter; we won.” Case closed.
Rule 2: No matter the truth of accusations against you, deny everything. Bob Woodward’s recent book quotes Mr. Trump counseling a friend who had privately confessed to sexual-misconduct charges against him. “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny, and push back hard on these women,” says Mr. Trump. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.” The corollary to Rule 2 is that the best defense is a good offense. As the president told his friend, “You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. Never admit.”
Rule 3: Responding to criticism on its merits is pointless. Instead, challenge the motives and character of your critics. Their criticism isn’t sincere anyway: It’s all politics, the unending quest for dominance. If ridicule works, use it, even if it means caricaturing your adversaries by reducing them to their weakest trait. If Jeb Bush is “low energy,” who cares what he thinks about immigration?
Rule 4: To win, you must arouse your supporters, and deepening divisions is the surest way to do it. Even if compromise could solve important problems, reject it whenever it threatens to reduce the fervor of your base. No gain in the public good is important enough to justify the loss of power.
Rule 5: It is wonderful to be loved, but if you must choose, it is better to be feared than loved. The desire for love puts you at the mercy of those who can withhold it; creating fear puts you on offense. You cannot control love, but you can control fear. And this is the ultimate question of politics, indeed, of all human life: Who’s in control?
Defenders of President Trump’s code of conduct will point to what they see as its unsentimental realism. His maxims are the terms of effectiveness in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. They may not be pretty, but they work. Politics is not like figure skating. You get no points for style. You either get your way or you don’t. Nothing else matters.
Critics of Mr. Trump’s code—I’m one of them—view the distinction between permissible and forbidden means as essential to constitutional democracy, and to all decent politics. What Mr. Trump’s supporters see as the restoration of national greatness, his critics see as the acceleration of national decline.
This, to no small extent, is what next month’s elections are really about.
“Excuse me, when you look at Stormy Daniels,” Rudolph Giuliani, .. before interrupting himself to make a face. And what a face: Giuliani’s expression was, perhaps, meant to be one of knowing revulsion at Daniels, but the lopsided chaos of his features conveyed a moral contortion all his own. He had been explaining that Melania Trump believed in her husband implicitly, and so should everyone else, because he was Trump
.. Giuliani added, “I know Donald Trump. Look at his three wives, right?” It wasn’t clear if, with that questioning note, he was looking for a confirmation of the exact number of Trump’s wives. “Beautiful women, classy women, women of great substance. Stormy Daniels?” He paused to make another face
.. “But I’m sorry, I don’t respect a porn star the way I respect a career woman, or a woman of substance, or a woman who has great respect for herself as a woman, and as a person. And isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation. So, Stormy, you want to bring a case? Let me cross-examine you.”
.. It is more of an honest living than some New York real-estate developers make.
.. she has also made it clear that she knew that she was taking a risk by opening herself up to this kind of attack
.. (Clifford has said that one of the new expenses she has taken on, in addition to her legal fees, is for security.)
.. Giuliani jumped in, seemingly intent on playacting the role of a beat cop from a past century, who, in dealing with the woman who comes to tell him her story, looks at what she is wearing, smirks, and turns away—or, as Giuliani suggested in his “cross-examine” remark, the role of the lawyer who has no better tactic than to try to humiliate a witness, labelling her a loose woman.
.. That is a form of sexual exploitation far more corrosive than any film that Clifford has ever made.
.. Giuliani’s comments went beyond whether Clifford could be believed to whether she could even be hurt. “Explain to me how she could be damaged,” he said. “She has no reputation. If you’re going to sell your body for money, you just don’t have a reputation.” But Clifford does not say that Trump, against whom she has filed a defamation suit (in the Southern District of New York, Giuliani’s old territory), damaged her by calling her an adult-film star. She says that he damaged her by saying, on Twitter, that her account of being threatened not to talk about their sexual encounter was “a total con job”—and that she, by implication, was a total con woman
.. when NBC asked Giuliani whether he regretted his remarks, he said that he did not, dressing up his denial with a vague reference to feminism and daughters. He also said, “I don’t have to undermine her credibility. She’s done it by lying.”
.. Giuliani, perhaps more than any of Trump’s other lawyers, has made Cohen sound like Trump’s bag man, with slush-fund-management responsibilities.
.. he corruption case against Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, was a “joke”
.. Mueller’s team was trying to “frame” Trump.
.. while the President could be impeached, “in no case” could he be indicted or subpoenaed, not even “if he shot James Comey.” There is regular speculation about when Trump might fire Giuliani. But it may be that Giuliani is the President’s lawyer because he is the kind of lawyer Trump likes.
.. Giuliani’s remarks about Clifford are more than repugnant; they are revealing. They convey a political philosophy that he and the President share
.. those who are vulnerable are meant to be wounded, and have no right to ask for respect, let alone protection. It is a bully’s declaration of open season on the weak.
.. But Stephanie Clifford is not as defenseless as Giuliani or Trump might think. She has presented a credible and strikingly strong legal case. Maybe Giuliani should be listening to her.