White Lies

As that hallowed expanse of country adjoining California to the New York Island broils beneath the candescent sky of an Olympian heat, still one place in America remains too cool to melt butter: the mouth of the banker. So smooth these operators that one need hardly scratch the thief to find the liar, for the whitest of lies enables the Blackest of thefts. As news of a fresh regulatory scandal breaks in the City, this is a lesson our capitalistic cousins across the water must take to heart. A senior executive at British bank Standard Chartered, Plc., whose charter now stands accused of laundering money for terrorists, has missed the point entirely. “You fucking Americans,” he is alleged to have opined in response to warnings of criminal sanction-busting. “Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?” Indeed. Yet the leaf London should lift from the great book of American banking is not to avoid doing the devil’s business, but to wrap the dirty deed in the mantle of sainthood.

The nostrum purveyed by the subprime salesman, to take a case in point, is enough to make a tent revival preacher blush. After decades of condemning borrowers of colour to the perdition of rental drudgery, the US mortgage industry finally saw the light cast by the seraphic glow of the dollar sign. The credit once carefully “rationed” to those whose melanin equity empowered the American dream of home ownership began to flood across the redline sometime in the 1980s. The benevolent reversal of the racial fix was the sweetest deal a banker ever made. Astronomical rates of usury could be justified by the manufactured risk of the transaction, and if robbing Peter to pay Paul should crash the global economy, the (de)fault would rest firmly at the feet the foreclosed, whose yearnings outstretched their earnings, or otherwise with the Holy Joes in Congress who allegedly flogged the industry into racial contrition with the Community Reinvestment Act.

The consequences of this conversion from redline to subprime have been astounding, and illustrate the brutal entwinement of race, space and class. Figures from the 2010 decennial census indicate that the great American wealth gap nearly doubled in the wake of the recession, with median net worth falling sixty percent for Black and Latino households, but only 23 percent for white ones. And housing was the rub: the concentration of debt in what Wells Fargo loan officers unabashedly termed “ghetto loans” for “mud people” left households of colour mired in the stinking swamp of the housing crash while the lending industry came out smelling like roses. Let us pause to give the devil his due: there is a demonic poetry to this pernicious form of capitalistic reproduction, which turns sin to salvation at the drop of a dime.

My advice to StanChart: abandon the futile outpost of British indignation and embrace the burden of another kind of white man’s banker. Call it “development.” When Washington comes a’knocking, adopt a defensive humanitarian position. The turnpike to terrorism turned out to be the moral high road all along. Point (quietly) to Iraq, and well you might, as an example of the devastation wrought by the practise of global redlining, and take a righteous stand on behalf of those drowning in the deep end of the dignity deficit. Remember that you are the victim here, and if any real victims should come out in the whitewash, follow in the footsteps of your Yankee gurus and make damn sure they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.