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‘None of it is in the past’: Writer Emily Flitter on her upcoming book examining racism in the financial system

February 12, 2021, 12:30 AM UTC

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Emily Flitter has covered banking for the New York Times since 2017, with an emphasis on the lack of diversity on Wall Street and how Black and brown customers interact with financial systems. Before that, she covered finance for several outlets including Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and American Banker. 

At the beginning of February, she announced that she’ll be writing a book on racism at all levels of the financial system in America. On Twitter, Flitter said the book will focus on the racial bias happening now, rather than the Jim Crow–era practices or redlining of the past. The book will be published by One Signal, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, but does not yet have a title or a release date. 

Fortune spoke with Flitter about her plans for the book, how racism in financial services looks today, and what she is on the lookout for from the Biden administration with regard to economic inclusion. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Give me the elevator pitch for the book.

It’s really simple. I think that everybody would generally agree that the big companies in the U.S. financial system’s messaging on racism and racial inequality is that it’s really a shame that Black Americans have been left behind. And there’s no question that the Jim Crow–era behavior by these institutions was bad, and they’ve cleaned up their act, and now they want to be good corporate citizens and do whatever they can around the margins to make things better. But in their own backyards, and in their own companies, they feel they’re fine, that they’ve solved the problems. And my book is about how none of it’s in the past. 

Obviously, there’s no city-sanctioned redlining that’s defined as such now, for instance. And there are all these policies and procedures that companies have in place that are supposed to prevent discrimination and provide channels for people to speak out if they’ve been mistreated. Everyone’s supposed to be treated equally. But, in fact, it just doesn’t happen like that. HR, as many people have observed, is mostly a way to protect the company and its leaders. The effect of retaliation is very real and happens all the time to people who try to speak up; there still aren’t good processes for dealing with the people who are actually abusing minorities and Black employees and customers; and in pretty much every part of the financial system, Black Americans are still at a disadvantage because of active racism.

How are you defining the realm of financial services in your book?

I definitely feel like it’s bigger than just banks. I think Wall Street in general, which includes brokerage firms, and all sorts of nonbank financial institutions and fintechs, especially. Because fintechs like to say that they’re actually less discriminatory because they have all these algorithms that are making decisions instead of people. I think that’s sort of an unexamined issue, whether the algorithms really do help. And then if you look at housing, the housing ecosystem in finance is mortgage lenders, but it’s also landlords and different components of that system that helps people find a place to live. So I don’t think the financial system is just banks.

How are you planning on structuring the book?

I really want people who read the book to experience what it’s like to be in these different situations. Whether it’s a customer being mistreated by employees at a bank branch, or whether it’s somebody in a high-up position on Wall Street getting punished for something that all of his or her white colleagues do regularly and kind of skate on.

I don’t want to sound naive, because I know that there are some people who can be told very intimate things and not have their empathy mechanism activated, no matter what. But I really think that if more people could see from behind the eyes of the people who are going through this stuff, that they would understand how big a problem we have, and how much more has to be done to fix it than what is being done with all of the messaging and pledges that have taken place in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. That’s just the beginning.

What do you make of those pledges from this summer? 

I’m going to do a really close examination of some of these pledges in the book, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but in general, I think that what I’ve seen from the biggest banks is similar to the things that they’ve been doing for years, which is that they made pledges to commit some big amount of money. But those pledges usually just say they’re going to do business. They’re going to do mortgage loans, and small-business loans, and the like. They’re going to do the business that they get paid to do. No one should give them a medal for that. 

Last year, in June, a former global head of diversity at Morgan Stanley sued the bank for discrimination after they fired her. And I wrote about it. And actually, when I say they fired her, they pushed her out. Technically, they would dispute the fact that they fired her. But I interviewed her, and she said, “Look, Morgan Stanley takes in $41 billion a year in revenue, and they’re saying they’re going to spend $25 million trying to make it more equal for Black employees and customers?” I mean, that’s a drop in the bucket that just shows that they don’t really have the will to put their money where their mouth is. I think that some of these other pledges that have bigger numbers actually turned out to be really similar to that.

Generally, would you say that diversity in financial services and on Wall Street has been more PR-based than substantive?

I do think so. I mean, look at JPMorgan—and I’m not trying to single them out, but they are the biggest bank, so they become a go-to example. I actually don’t think they’re any better or worse than anybody else. Jamie Dimon has been periodically pledging to do better over the years. And they aren’t. So, you know, where are the results? 

When you think about these big banks that have quarter-to-quarter scrutiny from Wall Street analysts, and every quarter they get asked, “How much money did you spend on overhead and paying people?” and their technology is scrutinized along with small dips in consumer business. There’s no level of granular accountability like this for diversity issues at all. Compared to that, it’s just like a niche sideshow. 

In 2019 I went to SIFMA’s diversity and inclusion conference, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. It’s this big, really powerful trade group that represents Wall Street and big banks and big investment companies. Their regular annual conference is huge; it’s thousands of people. They take over a whole hotel. And when I went to their D&I conference, it was like 130 people. And almost everyone was either a woman or Black or nonwhite. It showed that if you really care about diversity, you’re in a small group, and you’re probably in that group because you’re a minority on Wall Street.

How did you come to cover banking and financial services through this lens? 

When I first got the New York Times, it was during the height of the #MeToo revolution. And I’m sure you’ve come across people asking this question before: Why hasn’t it hit Wall Street the way it hit the media industry or Hollywood? The answer is mostly because Wall Street has really stringent requirements on its employees to engage in off-the-record negotiation through arbitration. So you don’t see the same court cases and settlements and things. And it’s like that in every industry where you can have these private settlements where everybody gets a lot of money, but they’re not allowed to talk about the situation. But on Wall Street, it’s even worse. Because if anyone finds out that you have any kind of settlement, you’re just blackballed from the industry. 

So I started to poke around trying to find secret #MeToo settlements, and I was talking to someone who represents people in discrimination cases. And that person was like, “You’re really looking at the wrong thing. The mistreatment of women certainly still happens, but it’s not nearly as bad as the racism.” And at first I sort of discounted that and went on trying to do some #MeToo stories, and then I just kept finding more and more racism cases. I was also in the midst of this when the New York Times’ 1619 project came out. And when I read it, specifically the part about how banks used slaves as collateral, I felt like there was just so much more that needed to be exposed, that we all needed to reckon with. And so it definitely drove me to try even harder to focus on this.

What are you hoping comes out of this book? When somebody reads this, what do you want them to take away?

I want everyone to read this book. I want bank executives to read it and realize how little they’re actually doing. I want people who are in the business of connecting college kids with companies to read this and understand how many different parts of that process are skewed, and how just getting someone an internship at a place doesn’t mean you’re done. I would like every Black person who reads it to understand that they’re not alone—not that I’ve met very many people who think that they’re alone. In fact, a reaction that I’ve gotten more than once is, “Thank you for finally saying what we all know.” But I think it’s great to give people a chance to share and make these experiences that can be so isolating a collective experience. And to let the people who are telling their stories to me share their pain and make it something that can somehow be a force for good. I want white people who don’t ever have to face these problems to read this book and understand how good they have it. When a white person walks into a bank the tellers don’t think that they’re (a) going to rob the bank, or (b) trying to defraud them with a check that’s actually made out to them for something that they legitimately did. That’s never happened to me. No one has ever not let me get my own money. I don’t have to dress a certain way. I don’t have to think about these things. And I think that everyone has the opportunity to be more caring, more forgiving, more kind, and less judgmental if they just understand what it’s like.

Why do you think that these issues have escaped people for so long, when it affects so many facets of life in America? 

It affects all of us. I was working on this particularly hard story for the Times about Wanda Wilson, the secretary who was mistreated by a white colleague and tried to complain, and her whole life blew up. And I had this thought: Can you imagine how much better our whole society would be if we actually fix this problem? I mean, it would be like Star Trek–level amazing. It would make everybody’s lives so much better.

So why do people think that it’s in the past? There are so many different reasons. And one of them is that we haven’t spent enough time acknowledging what we did in the past to begin with. If you look at what’s going on right now, with the discussion around the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, people are saying, “No, we don’t want to move on. We want this to get sorted out.” When did we ever do that with racism? Did we? I’d say no. So, if you never even acknowledged it once, how are you supposed to move past it? And also, how are you supposed to figure out what really needs to be fixed? 

What do you think of Biden’s promised approach to economic justice and financial inclusion? What do you think will actually happen under his administration? 

I think it really depends on who gets the power. From a legislative standpoint, the power lies in different committees. The Senate Banking Committee is a big one, and Sherrod Brown, who is now the chairman, we’ll see what he does. Obviously, we are still waiting to see who’s chosen to regulate big banks as the Comptroller of the Currency. When I saw that a lot of the racial justice stuff was going under housing in Biden’s plan—and perhaps this is the wrong interpretation, I don’t have reporting to back this up, it’s just sort of what I assumed—I immediately thought of the fact that HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] controls some of the implementation of laws that prevent discrimination. And the best example is the disparate impact rule.

Basically, disparate impact is when a policy by a company or some other private actor discriminates against a group without any visible intent to do so. It’s different from discrimination, where you have to show that this company set out to keep a certain group of people away or not do business with them. The Trump administration came in and set new bars for what you had to prove to bring a disparate impact case, so that basically no one could ever meet the requirements for bringing one. If you ask the people who were advocating in favor of the Trump administration’s rule change what their motivation was, they would say, “Oh, it’s just really confusing, and this clears up some weird Supreme Court case law. It’s really not a big deal.” But that did not last as an explanation, because in the summer, after George Floyd’s murder, basically all of the financial services industry, from banks to insurance companies to American Express, got together and they wrote letters to HUD saying, “please don’t implement this rule change, it’s too extreme.” And that never happens. 

Can you recommend any articles or books for Fortune readers who are interested in learning more about the pervasive racism in financial services? 

I can recommend a story that I didn’t write that I think is really great. It’s meaningful beyond just the individual story. It’s by my colleague Kate Kelly, who wrote about the former CEO of Credit Suisse Tidjane Thiam. He basically got pushed out of Credit Suisse. You’ll have to read the story to learn exactly what the justification for pushing him out was, but what really happened was he experienced incredible racism, just really blatant racism. And even the response of Credit Suisse to Kate’s reporting, when she called them and asked, “What do you think about all this stuff that I found?” is instructive. 

I think the reason why the story is even greater than the sum of its parts is that it shows that even at the highest level, the people in financial services and in the corporate world just don’t see themselves as being biased. And this blindness makes everything worse. 

What is the first step you think finance needs to take to start addressing these issues you write about and will cover in your book? 

I think that the key to all of this is shifting power out of the hands of the people who have it now.