Words by Kokayi Nosakhere
On December 1 – how ironic – once again, evidence of how deeply embedded the concepts of race and racism are in American society surfaced. I do not know if you are paying attention to the latest Black Twitter hashtag. By now, I find it difficult to keep track. For those who are up to date, I would like to offer the idea: #BankingWhileBlack is a teachable moment.
This is the second teachable moment we have received this year.
The incident symbolizes the moral crisis point this current generation is facing. I think the details of this incident do a better job of explaining systemic racism, and our collective socialization towards race, than the Starbucks incident did earlier this year. The brothers at the center of the Starbucks incident, by implementing a solution in harmony with status quo thinking, let America off the hook and did not force the quality of conversation that is needed.
First, let us outline what happened.
Second, let us explain what the nature of the crisis is.
Third, let us point toward a solution.
Studying – obsessing over – the details of what happened to the Cleveland, Ohio resident and citizen named Paul McCowns on December 1 is what you and I are socialized to do. We want to consume the details. Or, better, we are conditioned to consume the details. Consuming the details is American culture. We think by getting the details all right and the sequence of events correctly we have done significant work towards finding the solution. Yet, a solution is never identified, nor implemented. Why? There is always more details to examine.
I think we engage in this intellectual work because it is the work we feel we can do without risking our wellbeing. To actually find a solution means accepting some really dark aspects of our neighbors and neighborhoods. It means potentially looking at how I, the individual, show up and contribute directly to the inequality and injustice I find so shocking.
At the present moment, this is what we know, the obstacles McCowns overcame to cash a $1000 check are the following.
McCowns does not have a regular banking account. I come to this conclusion because on Dec. 2, the day after this incident, he successfully cashed his check at another Huntington branch – the name of the financial institution.
Being among the unbanked of America, McCowns knew what to bring to receive banking services. I imagine he spoke to the women in his life. Black women are geniuses at navigating business and nonprofit processes. The check was third party, meaning written by hand off of a small business account. (I come to this conclusion due to how the check was received by the manager.)
McCowns walked into a Huntington branch in the Brooklyn suburb. He produced the required two forms of ID. Then, the systemic nature of American racism kicked in.
Let me go slow.
All intellectual argument is going to lead us to conclude the teller in front of McCowns is/was innocent. He/She is an employee. It doesn’t matter what race she is. She is going to act like an employee. The average American can view himself or herself in the position of the teller. The average person knows he or she is not personally racist.
Because many of us take jobs we hate and do things on those jobs contrary to our own moral worldview, capitalistic culture teaches us to resist judging someone for the unjust outcomes associated with their employment. Workers are innocent; just trying to make rent.
The mystery we have to solve is why, all things being equal, the outcome of this encounter is/was racism. Mechanically, the outcome should not exist. There are laws in place, a socially acceptable agreement to treat customers to a certain standard. Society has progressed to the point where outcomes like this do not happen – unless done on purpose.
Yet, if we speak to each and every employee associated with this transaction, we will find each and every one of them views themselves as innocent.
Because you and I were not there, we can conclude the check’s amount did not fit the bias inside the mind of the teller, nor the rest of the branch staff. In a brilliant display of “group think,” the staff agreed to question the check and demand greater verification.
McCowns’ employer was called. The employer did not pick up. The manager put up resistance to cashing the check without contacting the employer and verifying that it was a real employment check.
It is difficult to assign blame to this decision and associate it with racism. Why? The public does not have access to the manager’s thoughts or dialogue during the incident. We can assume he or she justified his or her demands on branch policy and procedures.
The news has yet to give us the details of how McCowns conducted himself inside the branch. I imagine he was polite because when the police are called, the reason given did not relate to violence.
At some point, McCowns decided to leave the branch.
That’s when the manager called the police. Line cops responded as McCowns reached his vehicle outside of the branch. Again, the news has not released the exact details of how McCowns conducted himself, but he did not go to jail. Nor was he killed. I imagine, he was very polite to the police, however, I don’t think he enjoyed the experience.
This is what we know. Why Paul McCowns, a Black man in America, had this experience is what consumes social media comment threads.
The Nature of the Crisis
The “why” is really not in question. What is in question is how to inspire the branch staff that just produced a racist outcome their handling of the situation was racist without making them, as individuals, feel we are calling them racist. (Remember, racist means someone who cannot be fixed.)
The culture of individualism doesn’t help the conversation. By the nature of the idea, one-on-one confrontation is incredible force. The individual is not the system. That argument is valid and always available to the individual who feels under attack and has to defend themselves against the potential charge of being racist. The term cannot be made to stick with consequences.
To their credit, the majority of White Americans (60%?) recoil in shock and horror at such news of overt racist outcomes like #BankingWhileBlack. Unfortunately, American socialization doesn’t give allies many other options than the expression of outrage. Sharing in the emotion of the psychological hurt McCowns endured throughout such treatment is what we can do. It’s safe. It’s too safe. It is action the system can absorb without change. Law and order is maintained.
Joining in the emotional outrage also doesn’t prevent another incident. Each member of Black America remains just as vulnerable to racism. No learning happens leading to behavior change inside the individual and collective society. Few of us feel something more effective than expressing outrage can be done – not within the bounds of the current legal structure.
Of course, McCown can sue the Huntington Bank. Unfortunately, economic pain isn’t preventive medicine, nor is appealing to the justice system a guarantee of changed systematic behavior. If that worked, changing the laws would have eliminated racist outcomes by now. Somewhere in America another racist outcome will grind itself upon another Black person, against all of our collective wills and impassioned intellectual discourse.
It is this impotency those of us in this teachable moment which forments this crisis. It is a moral crisis. We know “it” – racism – is happening – how to address “it” – without each individual feeling as if the change is going to individually crush them – is both mystery and challenge.
The way Americans argue about race and class, we want the effects of both on society to go away without us who individually make up the society making it go away. It is considered injustice to ask the innocent to clean up the mess of the guilty.
In reality, the bank teller who served McCowen isn’t as innocent as she believes herself to be. The manager who called the police is more steeped in anti-blackness than he or she will ever confess to being. The police who responded aren’t as innocent as we want them to be. The police are used, against their will, to enforce the status quo. The teller, the manger, the police all individually do good and seek to do good inside of a monstrous system. The apology the bank issued isn’t enough. Nor is our shrugged acceptance of the bank’s apology. None of this is enough because none of it will stop the next racist outcome of this monstrous social system.
Towards a Solution
Growing up, my fifth and sixth grade principal, Ms. Foster, taught me what I label: The Rosa Parks Rule.
Principal Foster taught me on that day, the only person who was acting like an America is/was Rosa Parks. The bus driver’s job was driving the bus, not enforcing segregation law. The police officer who responded to the call, could have refused. All the persons on the bus could have told the bus driver to drive them home. In short, a lot of average people contributed to maintaining segregation, it wasn’t just the elite White business persons and history-making political personalities.
The Rosa Parks Rule teaches us that we, the individual, have a choice. We can innocently contribute to social inequality or we can boldly choose to contribute our time, talent and energy to freedom, justice and equality. We do not have to ball our fists and fight. All we have to do is practice justice from the limited space we occupy.
In other words, all of us are responsible for any moment/incident in America. If the outcome is racist, it is because our hands made the outcome racist. Our challenge is to accept responsibility and change the outcomes ourselves.
In the case of Paul McCowns, application of the Rosa Parks Rule would prevent the racist outcome. How? The manager would access his or her humanity, choose to accept the consequences, if any arise, and just follow regular business practices. Against his or her socialized bias, they would approve the check and cash it as is, without questioning if McCowns had a right to possess a $1000 check. Under the Rosa Parks Rule, in his or her eyes, McCowns is a citizen of America.
This is a teachable moment. This incident is an opportunity to move someone from a question of innocence, “Do I do that?” to a question of realization, “When do I do that?”
It is then, and only then, that a new space is created where we can have the conversation that is the paradigm-shift on race and racism in America.
There is no other, there is only us. The pathway to freedom, justice and equality is for us to actually act like we the people have the power.