New Jersey & New York Legal Defense
banking

Banking While Black

The New York Times recently published an article entitled, “Banking While Black”: How Cashing a Check Can Be a Minefield. The writer Emily Flitter’s report triggered memories of my own experiences at two local banks on the street where I work as a paralegal at a boutique white-collar criminal defense law firm in Chatham, New Jersey. Chatham is a small, affluent commuter town in the heart of the suburban North. In a compendium of police statistics called the Force Report, N.J. Advance Media states that in Chatham, “Black people represent less than 2 percent of the total population. However, minorities account for 18 percent of the arrests made in the town between 2012-2016.” Despite these statistics, when I began working there I strove not to bring any preconceived notions of the town to my new job.

One day during my first summer at the firm, I needed to withdraw money from the local branch of the Bank of America. I had left my debit card at home, and because this was before technology allowed a mobile phone to serve as a mobile bank card, I had to enter the bank and visit a teller. Dressed in business casual attire, I quietly stood in the line, scrolling through Instagram as I waited for a teller to become free. I remember overhearing one teller help an elderly female customer in front of me. The teller was friendly and patient with the lady, so when it was my turn to do business with the same teller, I was confident that my transaction would be pleasant.

I greeted the teller with a smile and said hello. I explained how I forgot my debit card and I passed her my driver’s license instead, along with the withdrawal slip which I had filled out while waiting in line. The teller was underwhelmed with my attempts to be friendly. She did not speak to me in full sentences. She mumbled a few times and affirmatively questioned what happened to my debit card. She looked up the home address on my account and commented that it was quite a distance from Chatham. I explained that I worked down the street from the bank. I didn’t mention that I was a paralegal at a prominent local law firm. She then told me that my license alone was not sufficient identification and that I needed additional proof to access my account. I raised my eyebrow at her request.

I had withdrawn cash from a Bank of America without a debit card before, and in larger amounts than I was asking for this time. I politely but firmly asked the teller if this was a new policy because a driver’s license had always been enough before. Nevertheless, I complied with her request and showed her my mobile banking application. I even downloaded a pdf account statement for her. While waiting for the document to download on my phone, I saw her closely examining my driver’s license again, as if checking for signs of forgery. I volunteered that I could confirm my social security number as well as pin code if she needed me to, but she didn’t respond. As the line behind me grew, so did my silent frustration. The teller never addressed my question regarding this extensive “new” process. Finally, my the teller’s suspicions were overcome, and she slid a few loose twenties through the window without asking if I wanted them in an envelope.

The same teller who had diligently assisted the elderly white woman never once looked me in the eye. I was frustrated but refused to play into the “angry black woman” stereotype. I left the bank without voicing my experience to the teller or a manager. Outside, I sat in my car for a few minutes to analyze the situation and became furious with myself for being so passive. First, I typed my account of this incident into the notes app on my phone. Then I called the branch manager. I explained to him the ways in which his teller was unfriendly and failed to acknowledge my question about why I was repeatedly required to verify my account. I also described how I was treated in a manner that was fundamentally different from the customer in front of me. The bank manager was apologetic, but my experience that day will be forever etched in my mind.

The second instance occurred a few months ago. I did not realize the discriminatory nature of it until I casually mentioned my experience to my boss and my office manager, both of whom are white. Occasionally I fill in for the office manager for tasks such as issuing checks and bringing daily deposits to the nearby branch of Lakeland Bank, where our firm has maintained all of it accounts for years. The bank staff are on a first-name basis with many of their customers, and they know the people at our firm by name if not by voice from our frequent phone conversations. On this occasion, my office manager had called the bank the week before and told them she was going on vacation, and that in her place they could expect a visit from “Nichole.”

I entered the bank, stepped up to the teller, and handed her several checks endorsed with the firm’s rubber stamp, along with a deposit slip for my firm’s account. The teller greeted me with a smile and asked for my driver’s license. She said she needed an extra moment while she wrote down my driver’s license number. We made small talk while I waited, and the teller asked me when my office manager would return from vacation. I returned to the office not thinking much of the situation. It was not until my boss inquired how my banking trip went that I told him about the request for my driver's license. He looked stunned and asked me why the teller needed my driver’s license to deposit funds into an account. It never occurred to me to ask the teller, but I couldn’t explain it either. When my office manager returned from vacation, my boss asked her about this, and she said she had never been asked for her license to deposit checks. They both were offended at the teller’s conduct. (They both are white, if that matters.) The bank knew that I would be doing the firm’s banking, I was depositing money into the firm’s account, and proof of identification had never been required to make a deposit before. The branch management had met me several times during their earlier visits to our law firm, and certainly had a basis to know me.

While these experiences are not as traumatic as those mentioned in the New York Times article, some of which ended in police getting involved, my experiences nevertheless stay with me in which I was treated differently for factors that I cannot alter. My youth, my race, or perhaps both prompted bank tellers to add an extra measure of security – or two – before allowing me to proceed with simple, innocuous transactions. My experiences with “banking while black” are among countless times in which I have been treated differently because of my race in all areas of life. I have a tendency to keep my experiences to myself. However, I am learning that the behaviors we do not address won’t change unless we do.

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