This Is What Racism Sounds Like in the Banking Industry
A JPMorgan employee and a customer secretly recorded their conversations with bank employees.
Dec. 11, 2019Updated 9:39 a.m. ET778 NY Times
Jimmy Kennedy earned $13 million during his nine-year career as a player in the National Football League. He was the kind of person most banks would be happy to have as a client.
But when Mr. Kennedy tried to become a “private client” at JPMorgan Chase, an elite designation that would earn him travel discounts, exclusive event invitations and better deals on loans, he kept getting the runaround.
At first, he didn’t understand why. Then, last fall, he showed up at his local JPMorgan branch in Arizona, and an employee offered an explanation.
“You’re bigger than the average person, period. And you’re also an African-American,” the employee, Charles Belton, who is black, told Mr. Kennedy. “We’re in Arizona. I don’t have to tell you about what the demographics are in Arizona. They don’t see people like you a lot.” Mr. Kennedy recorded the conversation and shared it with The New York Times.
It’s no secret that racism has been baked into the American banking system. There are few black executives in the upper echelons of most financial institutions. Leading banks have recently paid restitution to black employees for isolating them from white peers, placing them in the poorest branches and cutting them off from career opportunities. Black customers are sometimes profiled, viewed with suspicion just for entering a bank and questioned over the most basic transactions.
This year, researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that black mortgage borrowers were charged higher interest rates than white borrowers and were denied mortgages that would have been approved for white applicants.
Banks, including JPMorgan, say they are committed to eradicating the legacy of racism. And they insist that any lingering side effects simply reflect stubborn socioeconomic imbalances in society as a whole, not racial bias among their employees.
What recently transpired inside a cluster of JPMorgan branches in the Phoenix area suggests that is not true.
Mr. Kennedy was told he was essentially too black. His financial adviser, Ricardo Peters, complained that he, too, was a victim of racial discrimination. What makes their cases extraordinary is not that the two men say they faced discrimination. It is that they recorded their interactions with bank employees, preserving a record of what white executives otherwise might have dismissed as figments of the aggrieved parties’ imaginations.
Patricia Wexler, a JPMorgan spokeswoman, defended the bank’s overall treatment of Mr. Peters and Mr. Kennedy. She said that the bank hadn’t been aware of all of the audio recordings and that “in light of some new information brought to us by The New York Times,” the company put one of its executive directors on administrative leave while the bank investigates his conduct.
The Back of the Branch
Mr. Peters started his career at JPMorgan as a salesman in the bank’s credit cards division. After about eight years in various roles, he was promoted to a financial adviser position in Phoenix in 2016. His job was to help bank customers prudently invest their money.
Mr. Peters had won numerous performance awards at the bank, but things soon started going wrong for him.
He was working in a JPMorgan branch in the affluent Sun City West area of Phoenix. He sought a promotion to become a private client adviser, a job that would have let him work with wealthier and more lucrative clients.
The promotion never came. Instead, Mr. Peters was moved out of an office at the heart of the branch where he worked with other financial advisers and was relegated to a windowless room in the back.
In April 2017, one of his bosses, Frank Venniro, told Mr. Peters that another manager had accused him of taking customers’ files home at night, a violation of the bank’s code of conduct. Mr. Peters denied it, and Mr. Venniro accepted that he was telling the truth, according to a recording of the conversation. But, he added, Mr. Peters needed to be more cognizant of how his colleagues perceived him.
Mr. Peters was left with the impression that his managers, who were white, were predisposed to view him suspiciously. Could he prove it? No. What happened next was clearer.
Mr. Peters complained to Mr. Venniro that another financial adviser was trying to steal a prospective client: a woman who had just received a $372,000 wrongful death settlement after her son died. She was black.
Mr. Venniro told Mr. Peters that there was no point in his intervening in the dispute, because the woman was not a worthwhile client. “You’ve got somebody who’s coming from Section 8, never had a nickel to spend, and now she’s got $400,000,” Mr. Venniro said, referring to the federal program that provides vouchers to help with housing costs and whose title is sometimes used as a racial slur. “What do you think’s going to happen with that money? It’s gone.”
“But I thought that’s why we get involved,” Mr. Peters protested.
Mr. Venniro said no. “You’re not investing a dime for this lady,” he said. He knew from experience that she would quickly burn through the money. “It happens every single time.”
When Mr. Peters tried to argue, Mr. Venniro interjected. “This is not money she respects,” he said. “She didn’t earn it.”