Culture Scan

At the intersection of real estate, media, and pop culture.

Outsmarting Racism in 'The Banker'

The film, based on a 55-year-old story about racial discrimination in housing and lending, continues to have resonance.

I recently watched “The Banker” on Apple TV Plus. The movie is based on the true story of two Black entrepreneurs who became successful in the 1960s by finding workarounds to the racist business practices and attitudes of the time. Their tactics involved having a white man as the “face” of their company. The movie begins with Bernard Garrett (played by Anthony Mackie) about to testify in front of a Senate committee in 1965 about the lack of opportunities for aspiring Black businessmen and homeowners.

The Banker

The day after I watched the film, I edited this news story for REALTOR® Magazine about the lagging Black homeownership rate.

As I worked on the story, I began thinking about the movie again. It hit me: It’s been 55 years—from 1965 to 2020—and we still have a long way to go to even approach true racial equity.

Watch the film. (Even if you don’t have Apple TV Plus, it’s easy to sign up for a free seven-day trial.) The movie’s power comes from Mackie’s riveting performance and the always-welcome presence of Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Joe Morris, Garrett’s business partner. At one point, their company owned 177 mostly multiunit residential properties, many of them in white neighborhoods of Los Angeles. They also owned the tallest building in downtown Los Angeles at the time, plus two banks in Texas—one in Garrett’s hometown. They were run by their white stand-in, Matt Steiner (played by Nicholas Hoult), who did repairs on their properties before being recruited for his bigger role in the company. At various points in the film, Morris pretends to be Steiner’s chauffeur to go unnoticed but still be in the room where things happen, and Garrett begrudgingly puts on a janitor’s uniform—in the bank he owns.

It’s worth noting that Mackie, who’s also a producer of the film, is an activist in his own right. He has worked to build affordable housing in his hometown of New Orleans, among other philanthropic efforts. (Don’t miss his talk with Vince Malta on Nov. 17 as part of the REALTORS® Conference & Expo.)

As “The Banker” goes on, it becomes clear that the truth behind their business is going to be exposed. (Spoiler alert: Things don’t go well. In 1965, they’re charged with misapplying national bank funds and conspiracy and are sentenced to federal prison for three years. They each serve nine months, and they lose most of the money they made through their partnership. Matt Steiner is never charged with any crime.)

But their actions had positive repercussions: At the end of the film, we’re reassured that Garrett and Morris’s efforts were “instrumental in the fight against housing segregation in Los Angeles” because of their purchase of so many residential properties in “white only” areas. And in 1968, three years after their Senate testimony, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act.

Fifty-two years later, this statistic jumped out in the story I was editing about homeownership disparities: In the first quarter of 2020, 73.7% of white families owned their home, compared to a near all-time low of 44% for Black families, according to Census data.

The banks say they’re going to do more about the lack of parity. JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America have pledged closing cost credits, more down payment assistance and low-interest loans, and expanded affordable housing opportunities in underserved communities, according to The Washington Post.

It’s their latest response to being taken to task for denying mortgages to minorities more often than to whites. It’s long been an insidious situation made worse after the housing crash in 2008 and the country’s plunge into the Great Recession. Black homeowners faced foreclosure at a rate of almost twice that of white homeowners and, on the whole, have not recovered.

As part of his Senate testimony, Garrett poses this question to lawmakers: “Why is it so important for you to exclude an entire race of people from the American dream?” He then holds up the janitor uniform he wore to sneak into his own bank. It’s a reminder of the inequality that ruled the day and, unfortunately, still limits the dreams of many Americans. We all need to understand this history. REALTORS®, the real estate industry, and all Americans will benefit when systemic racism finally abates.

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