Here's a premise in two parts, perhaps debatable:
(1) The rawest kinds of racism have persisted more stubbornly in America than people of goodwill — inspired by the civil rights era and certain cultural gains of the last several decades — truly realized until recently.
(2) Yet the subtler manifestations have done more damage and represent the greater failure of imagination.
It's neither necessary nor wise to choose just one of these problems to address. Yet the second holds more promise for tangible results. That's because it has been driven less by closed minds and hard hearts and more by basic complacency.
In that context, efforts by one of Minnesota's Fortune 500 companies, U.S. Bancorp, are auspicious. On Wednesday, the company announced a set of initiatives meant to provide communities of color greater access to financial tools and information and, most crucially, to capital.
In particular, the company plans to make $25 million in loans and grants to small businesses run by women of color. That builds on $100 million in loans to Black-owned businesses it committed to last summer after George Floyd's death in police custody served as a catalyst for social reality recognition.
It's not the amount of money that impresses so much as the philosophy.
"U.S. Bank can't solve systemic racism," said the company's chief diversity officer, Greg Cunningham, "but what we can do as a financial services institution is to look [at data and inequities] and say where could we actually apply the core competencies of the bank. And we landed on this incredibly inequitable racial wealth gap ... where white families have household wealth of $170,000 and Black families have $17,000 in household wealth. That's a 10-to-1 racial wealth gap in this country that affects every single one of us."
There's a lot of helpful information in that quote, but the phrase that stands out to us is the one that might seem at first glance to be jargon: "actually apply core competencies."
Like many companies, U.S. Bancorp has a range of diversity focuses, including hiring and leadership and a healthy dollop of community outreach. But imagine if all businesses and institutions, like U.S. Bancorp, also tried to serve racial equity by doing what they already do, but better.
Among all industries, banking can have an outsized impact. Further evidence rolls by like a reverse wheel of fortune:
Fewer than a quarter of Black-owned small businesses have a recent borrowing relationship with a bank. They're turned down for loans at a rate twice as high as businesses with white owners. While they were the most likely to have applied for bank financing, less than half received full funding. They have the highest rejection rate even for company credit cards. They're concentrated in areas that were hit hardest during the pandemic, but benefited less from loans provided by the Paycheck Protection Program.