Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, took a knee last week before cameras at a branch of his bank. Larry Fink, CEO of giant investment fund BlackRock, decried racial bias. Starbucks vowed on Twitter to “stand in solidarity with our Black partners, customers and communities.” Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO David Solomon wrote on LinkedIn that he grieved “for the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless other victims of racism.”
And so on across the highest reaches of corporate America, an outpouring of solidarity with those protesting brutal police killings of black Americans and systemic racism.
But most of this is for show.
JPMorgan has made it difficult for black people to get mortgage loans. In 2017, the bank paid $55 million to settle a justice department lawsuit accusing it of discriminating against minority borrowers. Researchers have found banks routinely charge black mortgage borrowers higher interest rates than white borrowers and deny them mortgages white applicants would have received.
BlackRock is one of the biggest investors in private prisons, disproportionately incarcerating black and Latino men.
Starbucks has prohibited baristas from wearing Black Lives Matter attire (before reversing course) and for years has struggled with racism in its stores as managers accuse black patrons of trespassing and deny them bathrooms to which white patrons have access.
Last week, Frederick Baba, an executive at Goldman Sachs who is black, criticized managers for not supporting junior bankers from diverse backgrounds.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes — in the halls of Congress and the corridors of statehouses, in fundraisers and in private candidate briefings, in strategy sessions with political operatives and public-relations specialists — the CEOs who condemn racism lobby for and get giant tax cuts and fight off a wealth tax.
As a result, the nation can’t afford anything as ambitious as a massive Marshall Plan to provide poor communities world-class schools, first-class health care and affordable housing.
The CEOs resist a living wage and universal basic income. They don’t want antitrust laws jeopardizing their market power, thereby requiring consumers pay more. They oppose tighter regulations against redlining or prohibitions on payday lending, both of which disproportionately burden black and brown people.
Perhaps, most revealingly, they remain silent in the face of Donald Trump’s bigotry. Indeed, many are quietly funding the reelection of a president whose political ascent began with a racist conspiracy theory and who continues to encourage white supremacists.
This goes beyond mere hypocrisy. America’s top CEOs have amassed more wealth and power than at any time since the “robber barons” of the late 19th century — enough to get legislative outcomes they want and organize the system for their own benefit.
These new robber barons know that as long as racial animosity exists, white and black Americans are less likely to look upward and see where the wealth and power really has gone.
They’re less likely to notice that the market is rigged against them all. They’ll cling to the meritocratic myth that they’re paid what they’re “worth” in the market and that the obstacles they face are of their own making rather than an unjust system.
Racism reduces the odds they will join together to threaten that system.
This is not a new strategy. Throughout history, the rich have used racism to divide people and thereby entrench themselves.
Half a century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. observed much the same about the old southern aristocracy, which “took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”
President Trump is the best thing ever to have happened to the new American oligarchy, and not just because he has given them tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks.
He has also stoked division and racism so that most Americans don’t see CEOs getting exorbitant pay while slicing the pay of average workers, won’t notice giant tax cuts and bailouts for big corporations and the wealthy while most people make do with inadequate schools and unaffordable health care, and don’t pay attention to the bribery of public officials through unlimited campaign donations.
The only way systemic injustices can be remedied is if power is redistributed. Power will be redistributed only if the vast majority — white, black and brown — join together to secure it.
Which is what the oligarchy fears most.
Robert B. Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.” He blogs at www.robertreich.org.