When I saw Faye's message and checked the facts on this situation, all I could say was, "Say it ain't so, Faye." After seeing all of the grief that Tavis Smiley got (and deserved) for his affiliation with Wells Fargo, arguably the most toxic company to lack America, I was stunned to see that the NAACP would be willing to risk the public relations mess of actually taking money from the company that has not shown any meaningful commitment to righting the wrongs it committed. While its easy to get caught up in the "sell-out conspiracy theory," it is important that we uncover the truth.
The NAACP dropped its lawsuit against Wells Fargo just a few days before listing the company as its title sponsor. In an article about the suit in the New York Times, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous stated that, "We brought these lawsuits against lenders to change and stop patterns of racial discrimination and other mortgage-lending behaviors that have shattered American lives, families, and neighborhoods. We developed the NAACP banking principles to ensure that our country moves toward higher rates of sustainable homeownership. We commend Wells Fargo for taking a leadership role by being the first to embrace our principles and hope this effort becomes a model for collaborating with other financial institutions."
Okay, that almost sounds like it could make sense. My interpretation of Jealous' statement (I look forward to speaking to Ben at some point in the near future) is that Wells Fargo may be responding to the NAACP lawsuit by offering to partner with the organization to do good work within the African American community. While this outcome is certainly plausible, it is not yet proven. There is a thin line between Wells Fargo sharing its wealth with the entire black community versus simply sharing a smaller fraction of its wealth with the NAACP. If the latter is the case, then that makes the NAACP partnership similar to the one the company had with Tavis Smiley.
In a statement on its Web site, the NAACP explains the decision:
"Wells Fargo has invited the NAACP to review its lending practices and to make recommendations to further improve credit availability to African American and diverse businesses and consumers, to further assist borrowers facing foreclosures, and to further promote financial literacy and education."
I was with President Jealous at the Measuring the Movement Black Leadership forum in New York city last week. I didn't speak to him for very long, but we were on a panel together. One of the key points of the forum was to ensure that leaders are held accountable for their decisions as they pertain to the African American community. Jealous, nor any one else, is an exception to that rule.
What is disturbing about the NAACP's agreement with Wells Fargo is that there does not appear to be full disclosure. The only thing the public knows is that there is a clear correlation between the date at which the suit was dropped and the time shortly thereafter that Wells Fargo suddenly emerges as the title sponsor for the organization. Beyond that, there is a list of highly ambiguous statements by the NAACP about monitoring Well Fargo's' behavior and getting access to their data. The problem is that these vague statements are accompanied by a New York Times comment by Jon Campbell, the Wells Fargo executive vice president for social responsibility, only committing the company to "hoping" that it can make changes. Also, the firm has made it clear that it does not plan to make any immediate changes to the way it does business in minority communities.
While I do not accuse the NAACP of any ill will , the truth is that it has got to answer some questions. If you're suing someone one minute and taking money from them the next, that is going to lead others to have certain presumptions about what happened behind closed doors. If there is no transparency in the negotiations and resolution of the conflict? To make things simple, it would be much easier for Wells Fargo to give $200,000 to the NAACP than it is to deal with the multibillion-dollar task of righting its wrongs against the entire African American community. According to data released by the White House, more than 57 percent of the home loans sold to African Americans in the year 2006 are at risk of foreclosure (more than 60 days without a payment). As stakeholders and supporters of the NAACP, the African American community has every right to know the ins and outs of this conversation:
1) How much money did Wells Fargo give to the NAACP?
2) What is it getting in exchange for that money?
3) Exactly how is it planning to change its operating practices? Has it made any formal legal commitments, or just a vague promise to "partner" with the NAACP (we all know what it means when a company "partners" with an organization)?
4) Why are there several city and state governments around the nation who have NOT settled their lawsuits with Wells Fargo? (An amended complaint was just filed against the company by the city of Baltimore, which has seen dramatic abandonment allegedly as a result of Wells Fargo's lending practices). Is the city seeing something that the NAACP has chosen to overlook? If so, why?
5) How is Wells Fargo going to be held accountable by the NAACP in the future? If it is getting money from the organization, it is only logical that the group be expected to properly monitor Wells Fargo's behavior.
Partnering with Wells Fargo is not a crime, and the NAACP needs money in order to survive. The group has stated that it plans to ask Wells Fargo to make funds available to minority businesses and engage in financial-literacy campaigns in the future. The ultimate question is whether polite community service by Wells Fargo makes up for the billions in damage and losses that the African American community has suffered as a result of the company's irresponsible lending behavior. I believe that the answer is no. Ben Jealous my man, you've got a problem.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the new book 'Black American Money.' To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.