In June, an investigation by two Chicago newsrooms, City Bureau and WBEZ, analyzed more than 168,000 bank loans between 2012 and 2018. The team found that for every $1 banks loaned in Chicago’s white neighborhoods, they invested just 12 cents in the city’s Black neighborhoods. These findings reflect a grim truth that many researchers on urban affairs have long observed: Housing discrimination may be illegal, but residential segregation and de facto redlining have remained the norm.
The bank with the worst record in Chicago is also the nation’s largest, JPMorgan Chase. For every dollar it loaned in white neighborhoods between 2012 and 2018, the bank invested only 2.4 cents in the city’s Black communities. In response to these findings, Chicago residents have shut down bank branches across the city, and have called on the company to pay reparations.
Ja’Mal Green, a community activist and 2018 mayoral candidate, has been mobilizing community members and reaching hundreds of thousands through videos of protests and actions. His demands for change dovetail with a larger movement to hold banks accountable for their history of racist lending and profiteering from slavery (JPMorgan’s predecessor, Citizens Bank of Louisiana, secured its early mortgages through the purchase of thousands of slaves).
The rate of Black homeownership has barely budged since the Fair Housing Act prohibited racial discrimination in 1968, and today the average Black family has a net worth about one-10th that of the average white family, a gap larger than it was at the start of this century.
Subscribe today and Save up to $129.
I spoke to Green about community organizing, why banks should pay reparations, and the possibilities for radical social change in this moment.
Daniel Fernandez: You’ve called on Chase to give Chicago’s Black neighborhoods $1 billion in grants and $10 billion in loans, which will be used for home buyer assistance, small-business start-ups, and, eventually, the creation of a Black-owned bank. How did you settle on these demands?
Ja’Mal Green: We started by looking at the numbers—and what the numbers could have been. What WBEZ showed was that if Chase had been lending just at what the rest of the market was lending, which was like 8 percent, then our communities would have gotten $89 million each year since 2012. And if Chase was doing in our neighborhoods what they had been doing in a white neighborhood like Lincoln Park, then we would have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars every year since 2012.
We looked at those numbers and where they could have been, and tried to pick a number that would help us create generational wealth, jump-start the economy, lower the crime rate, and create businesses and ownership.
DF: When you were running for mayor back in 2018, you talked a lot about growing up in Englewood and the impact that poverty and systemic racism have had on your life and your community. How do these actions against Chase fit into a larger movement for accountability in communities that have been historically underserved?
JG: This fits into a larger movement of wanting economic progression, instead of what we’ve been getting, which is economic oppression. And of course the banks are intertwined with what’s been going on with our government dollars. It comes [down] to really investing in our urban communities. They’ve been left behind for so many years. There’s still a War on Drugs, but there’s not a war on poverty. When you have poverty, it spills over into a whole bunch of other problems. But the criminal justice system is the only thing they push us towards.
Many of us were brought over to America because of capitalism. They brought us over here to create the wealth they now have. Just like how JPMorgan used slaves as collateral. [Our bodies] were used to create everything in America, but we never reaped the benefits. And so after 1865, when we were freed from the physical chains, they created all of these systems that we could not see, but would ultimately keep us at the bottom. They put all of these systems in place to make sure that folks of color in America would never be able to get far enough ahead to be able to make it in their communities.
DF: WBEZ recently reported that both the state treasurer of Chicago and of Illinois plan to work with banking leaders on how to root out systemic racism in the industry and to direct more money to Black communities across the state. What are you hoping will come out of this?
JG: I think we’re in a unique time, where folks all over the country are waking up and paying attention. We’ve got the city treasurer, the state treasurer, and the Cook County treasurer all involved and trying to help us root out racism in the banking industry. Those leaders must bring [JPMorgan] Chase to the table, and say, “We will divest from you if you do not change your policies, if you do not pay these communities that you’ve hurt.” They have that power because they’ve been funneling money to those banks for so many years. And when you can give $1.7 million in home loans to Englewood, but give $980 million to Lincoln Park over the same time span, you are showing that you really don’t care. It’s not fair, especially because you have these branches in the same communities that you refuse to invest in, where folks are keeping their money.
DF: In Chicago, you have elected officials talking about wanting to end systemic racism without necessarily paying reparations. Why is paying reparations important, and why is a pledge to end systemic racism not enough?
JG: When you’re talking about these goals, people have to understand that you cannot erase the damage that you’ve already done. You can’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to be better,” and not be held accountable. I can’t just commit a crime, and the next day say, “I’m not going to commit any more crimes, I’m turning myself over to Jesus.” They’re still going to hold me accountable for yesterday’s crime.
These banking institutions have deprived these folks of creating generational wealth and owning their homes, even when they’ve had the credit score, even when they’ve had the down payment. You don’t just say tomorrow, “I’m going to change my policies.” That’s what Chase committed to on their call [earlier today], but that’s not good enough. It’s not enough to say that you’ll do better now. We have to hold them accountable to pay reparations. It’s the only way to go.
DF: In many ways, what you’re calling on the community to take up—to not put their money in banks that refuse to invest in them and their community—is an action with deep historical roots. What came to mind immediately for me was MLK, right before he was killed, telling folks in Memphis to take money out of the big downtown banks and to put it in a local one run by Jesse Turner. He called it a “bank in.” Because many of these demands are decades old, I’m curious how you’ve thought about—and been inspired by—past movements?
JG: From the start we’ve tried to educate Black people about the power of their dollar. And what I preach today is that you should always know where your dollar is going, because you could be funding your own oppression. Whether it’s a business that disrespects people that look like you, or a bank that won’t invest in you, if you put your dollar there—if you give them your dollar—you’re funding your own oppression.
If you understand the power of your dollar, you have control, and you can turn that control into power for your community. Past movement leaders like MLK have preached this, and I want to educate us on the power of our dollar and knowing where it goes, too.
Get unlimited access: $9.50 for six months.
DF: What’s the mood of the protests been like? What have you heard from community members?
JG: We’ve shut down eight or nine banks so far. We don’t get much opposition from people because folks in these communities understand what Chase does. It’s more of a “Finally!” moment. Folks are getting educated, they’re taking their money out. You’re seeing folks move their money, and stockholders are looking at the articles and selling their stock. And now Chase wants to come to the table before things get even worse.
DF: Have there been any moments from the protests that stick out to you?
JG: Lincoln Park. We shut down a location there, and what stuck out was the change in the environment. When you go outside of that Chase, you have a community without crime. You didn’t have folks standing on the corner selling drugs, you didn’t have folks begging for money. You have a community where a lot of folks are thriving, and a lot of those folks are upper middle class, where they have homes and are embedded in their community.
What I told folks on Facebook Live is that this can be our reality. We can have a community without violence, we can have a community where we are living lives, where we have great careers, where we can open up businesses, where we can walk our dog and have a good time without worrying about what could happen. I wanted to give hope to all these communities—and all the folks living in these communities—where there are boarded-up businesses, boarded-up homes, violence, police brutality, just all these problems going on, and nobody is doing anything about it. We want to give people the feel of where we could be if we start holding these institutions accountable [and get them] to invest in our communities.
Daniel FernandezDaniel Fernandez is an editorial intern at The Nation.