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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Weighing Big Tech’s Promise to Black America

In the spring of 2020, folks in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward started flocking to the Sankofa food pantry on Dauphine Street however they could—by car, on bicycles, rolling pushcarts on foot. The lines were brisk but constant as the cascading effects of the coronavirus pandemic swept through the neighborhood of pastel-colored houses. Some people had lost jobs. Others were caring for loved ones sick with the virus, or picking up food for people under quarantine. For Rashida Ferdinand, the director of the nonprofit that operates the pantry, the crush of demand posed a series of dilemmas—beginning with the fact that she could no longer allow people inside the building. But one thing was sure: Shutting down the pantry was out of the question. No matter what, Ferdinand says, “we knew we needed to stay open.”

After circulating undetected through the city during much of Mardi Gras, the coronavirus had overwhelmed New Orleans with unprecedented speed, and it was killing more people per capita there than nearly anywhere else in the United States. Under lockdown, almost 100,000 people in the Crescent City had been thrown out of work as businesses were forced to shutter and tourism ground to a halt. In the Lower Ninth Ward, where a third of residents work in either food service, lodging, or retail, and where household incomes are half the parish average, the need for aid was especially acute. In so-called good times, about 350 people relied on Sankofa’s services. Now Ferdinand’s organization was furnishing more than 800 people a month with milk, eggs, canned beans, and other staples.

To meet the need, Sankofa stretched itself. The pantry went from being open two days a week to four. It began delivering food to people who could not collect it in person. When some of Ferdinand’s employees started working from home for fear of contracting the virus, she started handing out food herself. With sheets of plexiglass purchased from Ace Hardware, she improvised a Covid-safe storefront on Sankofa’s patio deck. Inside, nearly a dozen red and black metal shelves took over most of the headquarters’ open floor plan. “Our whole front office became the pantry,” she says.

But then the next dilemma reared up: Sankofa was running out of money. The nonprofit employed about a dozen people and was racking up expenses faster than usual, while sources of grant funding were drying up in the financial uncertainty of the pandemic.

Relief seemed to be on the way from the federal government. In late March, Congress authorized $349 billion in forgivable loans to help small businesses and nonprofits maintain their payroll amid the shutdown. To access the funds, business owners had to go through financial institutions. So Ferdinand immediately called Capital One, where Sankofa had banked for 10 years and maintained a typical account balance of around $300,000. But a representative told her the bank could not process her loan application. “I don’t know what was going on with Capital One, but we were disregarded,” Ferdinand says. “There wasn’t a person set up to actually move this needle forward and work with small business owners.”

So Ferdinand began researching other lenders that might be able to help her. She ultimately turned to Hope Credit Union, a Black-operated financial institution based in Jackson, Mississippi, which took on her loan application right away.

Now in its 26th year of operation, Hope’s mission is to serve low-income communities and people of color left behind by the traditional banking system. The organization has weathered disasters in the Deep South before, from Hurricane Katrina to the Great Recession. In fact, Hope tends to gain customers during such events, which lay bare the ways in which the US economy devalues Black life and Black ambition. “I think crises have catapulted our growth,” says Bill Bynum, Hope’s CEO. “Unfortunately, very few organizations are providing financial services to those who have the greatest need.”

As the pandemic continued to unfold, Hope also got an infusion of capital from an unlikely source: Silicon Valley. In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Netflix announced that it would place a $10 million deposit at Hope, the largest sum the credit union had ever received from a single customer.

Floyd’s killing sparked widespread protests in the streets and calls for racial justice in Fortune 500 boardrooms. But while corporate America’s official responses often felt like crisis PR disguised as philanthropy, Netflix’s approach stood out. The company’s deposit at Hope was just one small part of a plan drawn up by a mid-level HR executive who had been researching Black-operated banks in his spare time. Following his advice, the company pledged to invest 2 percent of its cash holdings in financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities—a proportion of the company’s wealth that, at the time of the announcement, amounted to about $100 million. As Netflix’s fortunes rose, the theory went, so too would those of Black businesses and nonprofits like Ferdinand’s.


Netflix’s announcement also included a call to action. The streaming giant challenged other firms to follow its lead and dedicate some share of their cash to Black economic initiatives. “This is not charity,” says Aaron Mitchell, the human resources director at Netflix who spent months devising the Black banks proposal. “This is not one time.”

Whether Netflix’s move is sufficient is a different kind of question. This summer a handful of tech companies—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla—reached a collective valuation of $9.6 trillion, about a quarter of the entire S&P 500. Meanwhile, Black communities have weathered decades of disinvestment, struggling in a segregated economy that has persisted long since the eradication of Jim Crow, and the nation’s wealth is more unevenly distributed today than at any time since before the Great Depression. Hope, with Netflix’s help, aims to reverse that flow of inequality. “We’re looking to basically import deposits, import capital, into these wealth-starved communities,” Bynum says. But will Netflix keep faith with those communities?

Black banks have been held up as the secret to racial uplift since the end of the Civil War. In 1865 the Freedman’s Savings Bank was chartered by Congress for the benefit of newly emancipated slaves and was described by Frederick Douglass as his people’s “road to a share of the wealth and well-being of the world.” Decades later, in the most successful Black American enclaves of the early 20th century, institutions like the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia, and the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Durham, North Carolina, helped Black people purchase homes and finance new businesses. For generations, Black leaders across the ideological spectrum, from Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, have encouraged their people to seize their own financial destiny by controlling banks. And in any case, white-owned banks rarely lent to Black people before the Civil Rights era. “There are many reasons that people have been drawn to Black-owned banks,” says Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at UC Irvine and the author of The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. “Solidarity and necessity, most especially.”


But these institutions have long teetered, along with their clientele, on a knife’s edge of financial precarity. For a hundred years after slavery, Black people were systematically excluded from well-paying blue-collar and white-collar jobs, and today they still face higher unemployment rates than white people. The practice of red-lining, a state-sanctioned policy of labeling Black neighborhoods as financially hazardous for investment, denied many people access to homeownership, which is historically the easiest route to intergenerational wealth and financial stability. Redlining was outlawed in 1968, but today mortgage-approval algorithms continue to favor white home buyers over their Black counter-parts. Business loans and venture capital, too, still accrue to white entrepreneurs far more than to entrepreneurs of color. These factors have contributed to a huge and persistent racial wealth gap: While the median white family’s net worth is $171,000, the median Black family’s is $17,000. And that gap makes it nearly impossible for Black-owned financial institutions to generate much wealth without more integration into the broader financial system.

In order to function efficiently, banks and credit unions need collective buy-in both from people who make deposits and people who take out loans. The money you keep in your savings account may get loaned out to an entrepreneur; the business they build may, in turn, provide jobs in your community, giving workers more money to spend and save. And some of those earnings may wend their way back to the original bank in the form of more deposits. This dynamic is called the money multiplier effect, and it undergirds America’s economic prosperity. But that virtuous cycle falls apart in communities that lack capital. “Banks aren’t magic,” Baradaran says. “If there isn’t wealth in the Black community, they can’t create it out of nothing.”

At the same time, in the broader ambit of the financial system, Black banks have consistently been denied advantages heaped upon white-controlled institutions. In the early 20th century, a son of European immigrants, Amadeo P. Giannini, watched his Bank of Italy gain mainstream acceptance and evolve into Bank of America, while Black Chicago banker Jesse Binga saw his Binga State Bank denied aid from a banking association it belonged to at the onset of the Great Depression, leading to his financial collapse. Nearly a hundred years later, during the 2008 financial crisis, major national banks were deemed too big to fail and received cash infusions from the Treasury Department. Smaller Black banks in Chicago, Milwaukee, and New Orleans were eventually forced to shut their doors.

Despite all these clear disadvantages, Black leaders and white officials alike have nonetheless expected Black banks and their clients to create a self-sustaining economic engine—a perpetual motion machine of noble self-reliance. “The black community has to build from within,” Richard Nixon admonished in a 1968 campaign ad. If only they could effectively pool their resources, the rhetoric went, Black people would lift themselves out of poverty and into the compounding benefits of intergenerational wealth.


Hope was born in the mid-1990s when the members of Anderson United Methodist Church, where Bynum was a worshipper, decided to pool their resources and open a credit union. The church sat in a low-income neighborhood surrounded by payday lenders and check cashers, the kinds of financial institutions common in areas where national banks avoid opening branches. At the time, Bynum was CEO of a community development financial institution, or CDFI, called the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta—a type of organization designed to take in public and private dollars to fund projects in low-income communities. When the church’s pastor expressed interest in opening a credit union that members of the congregation would own together, Bynum provided the financial expertise necessary to get the organization off the ground. “We did it with volunteers,” recalls Bynum, whose thick, quizzical eyebrows always seem to be searching for the solution to a problem. “It was in the same room that the tithes and offerings are counted.”

From early on, Hope set out to avoid the trap of self-help, by-your-own-bootstraps thinking—and went looking for ways to leverage resources outside its community. By 2002 the credit union had moved its operations from the church to a stand-alone branch in a Jackson shopping mall. That same year, Hope joined forces with Bynum’s CDFI in order to expand the resources available to both firms, and Bynum was named CEO of the joint organization. Hope soon added a policy arm, now called the Hope Policy Institute, which aimed to influence state and federal legislation concerning financial support for low-income families.

Hope Credit Union opened its first branch outside of Mississippi in New Orleans in late 2004, in the historically Black enclave of Central City. Months later, Hurricane Katrina roared through, flooding more than 110,000 homes and 20,000 businesses, predominantly in Black neighborhoods. Bynum immediately turned his organization’s attention to the crisis. The credit union helped nearly 3,500 New Orleans residents open deposit accounts so they could access FEMA payments and other emergency funds; the community development financial institution raised millions of dollars for a hurricane relief fund, then put the money to work rebuilding homes and businesses; and the policy center pushed for state legislation that would ensure federal hurricane relief went to the people who needed it most.

Hope’s performance during Katrina sparked an extended period of growth. By 2018 the credit union was operating in five states, including Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Membership grew from 4,000 in 2005 to more than 35,000 by the end of 2019. Deposits over the same period grew from nearly $29 million to $236 million. But the profile of its clientele remained largely the same—77 percent of the credit union’s members are Black, and their average credit score is 87 points below the national average. “When the wind blows,” Bynum says of the typical Hope member, “they get blown the farthest.” So Bynum kept trying to find new ways to bring the credit union ballast—in the form of large deposits from wealthier players in the economy.

After Hurricane Katrina, Rashida Ferdinand was among the tens of thousands of New Orleans residents whose neighborhoods were submerged in several feet of water. Sankofa, her nonprofit, grew out of a long, shared struggle to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward, where Ferdinand still lives. The 13-year-old organization began as an effort to establish a monthly open-air market that brought fresh food, crafts, and life to the ravaged neighborhood. A sculptor by trade, Ferdinand says she built Sankofa almost as if she were setting up a work of public art. “You’re building spaces for people to commune and have laughter and love,” she says, “the same spirit that you might bring to an installation.”

Over the years, Sankofa added the food pantry, a community garden, and a wetlands park with a nature trail. It grew up on partnerships with foundations, public agencies, and national banks—only to see some of that support evaporate when the next major disaster arrived.

Ferdinand’s experience of being left behind by a major financial institution during the pandemic was far from unique. After Congress authorized the Paycheck Protection Program, national banks such as Bank of America and Chase refused to process applications for new clients, and even their existing small customers were left fighting for scraps while larger companies received priority treatment. An unseemly share of the initial PPP money went to publicly traded firms, and according to an -analysis by Bloomberg, business owners in majority-white congressional districts were more likely to receive loans than those in heavily minority districts.

Hope made a conscious decision to fill the gap. In New Orleans, a local business incubator called Propeller, which works primarily with entrepreneurs of color, was struggling to keep up with all the requests it was getting for help navigating the PPP loan application process. “That’s when Bill called me and said, ‘We’ll take every single PPP application that you have,’” says Andrea Chen, Propeller’s CEO. So Propeller, working together with a nonprofit called Thrive New Orleans, sent out an email to entrepreneurs of color across the city. About 100 responded within 24 hours.

Among the people who connected with Hope through Propeller was Kirby Jones, a coffee shop owner who had grown her business, La Vie en Rose Café, from a pushcart to a brick-and-mortar storefront shortly before the pandemic. Jones had been a solo entrepreneur for four years but never considered a traditional bank loan. “I was a young mom, single Black woman, not married,” says Jones, who often cradles her youngest daughter, Lily Rose, in one arm while she makes lattes at La Vie en Rose. “To most banks I am definitely not a potential loan candidate.” Jones got in touch with Kathy Saloy, a senior vice president at Hope and one of its key leaders on the ground in Louisiana. Jones ultimately secured about $12,000 in two loans through the PPP program, which helped pay her own salary before her coffee shop was able to reopen in the fall of 2020.

In New Orleans, Hope processed 444 paycheck protection loans in 2020, the most of any market where the credit union operates. Among the businesses and nonprofits Hope helped were a charter school, a dentist’s office, and a local bus touring company called Legendary Tours. All were Black-owned and had previously done business with other banks before the pandemic. Edward Hogan, who runs Legendary Tours, sought out Hope in part because he thought a Black-owned institution might treat him more fairly than banks had in the past. “Sometimes, not all banks but certain banks, they let ethnicity come into play,” he says. “You do everything right. You give them all the documentation that they need, and you still sometimes get denied.”

In the Lower Ninth Ward, Sankofa was able to secure a $66,000 loan through Hope. The funds allowed the pantry to retain most of its staff and remain open with extended hours through the end of 2020, providing food to more than 8,600 people. “That was really significant,” Ferdinand says. “It helped us to keep our doors open.”

But the Paycheck Protection Program was always just a stopgap, centered on facilitating a one-time transfer of money from the federal government to business owners. And despite the work of organizations like Hope, many of those businesses still suffered. Bynum cites research showing that more than 40 percent of Black entrepreneurs were put out of work early in the pandemic, compared to 17 percent of white business owners. For many businesses and nonprofits limping through the pandemic economy, one or two bailouts weren’t enough. What they really needed was a deeper, more sustained investment.

On April 16, 2020, about a month after the pandemic began disrupting every facet of American life, Aaron Mitchell was hosting a virtual dinner party. It was supposed to be a networking event focused on increasing diversity in high-level corporate jobs, but as the group talked, the conversation shifted to the much more immediate needs of Black small-business owners struggling to keep their enterprises afloat. That day, the Small Business Administration announced that the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program had run out of money. Many loan applications had been left unfulfilled. Large corporations like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House had received millions, only to return the funds after public scrutiny. The chief lending officer of a Black-owned bank in Baltimore, who was on Mitchell’s call, explained the challenges institutions like his were facing as they tried to support their clients of color, not only during the pandemic but on a day-to-day basis. The group immediately started brainstorming solutions. “As he’s explaining all this, somebody’s like, ‘Well, how do we get corporations to bank with Black banks?’” Mitchell recalls. “That’s when I was like, ‘That’s an interesting question.’”

Mitchell came from a Black family with an entrepreneurial spirit. When he was a teenager growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, his mother and grandmother opened a bakery called the Smith Family Bake Shop. Mitchell himself specialized in making a red velvet cake that he still enjoys baking from time to time. But the shop closed after a few years, in part due to his family’s lack of experience running a business. He decided he would go to school to gain some of the knowledge his predecessors lacked, eventually graduating from Temple University with a degree in human resources and, later, from Harvard Business School.


Mitchell’s work in HR took him to Singapore, where he worked as a recruiter for Citigroup. It was there that he spent the nascent years of the Black Lives Matter movement, observing from afar how the conversation about race in America was changing. He also realized how drastically his experiences as a Black man in Asia differed from the ones he was seeing back home. “Most people in Singapore just treated me like an American,” he says. “There was none of the second-guessing or unconscious bias that was part of the everyday experience. It was almost like walking around with a 200-pound weighted vest lifted.” When he returned to the US, he knew combating racism would be a priority for him. “It was kind of like, I cannot not do this work as part of my job,” he says.

Not long after his return, Mitchell landed a job in HR at Netflix. The streaming giant has a somewhat infamous work culture that emphasizes autonomy and transparency at all costs. Some former employees have described it as dysfunctional, rife with unnervingly public firings and performance reviews (any employee can critique any other). But Mitchell, a lifelong musician, likens Netflix’s corporate structure to a jazz band, where creativity and adaptation are fundamental. The lack of hierarchy at the company allowed him to pursue what he calls his “jazz solo” as he began to research Black banks.

The first person Michell reached out to after his April dinner was Bill Bynum, who was able to provide some wide-angle perspective on the importance of both Black banks and CDFIs. Mitchell also picked up Mehrsa Baradaran’s book The Color of Money. Poring over its 384 pages, he was surprised to learn just how many laws and regulations had been put in place over centuries to forestall attempts to build Black wealth. These obstacles, he realized, dated all the way back to the original Freedman’s Bank, where Black people ultimately saw their deposits raided by white managers for risky investments. “Until I read that book, I thought that this was a much easier problem to solve,” Mitchell said. “You can’t really help until you understand the complexity of the problem.”

Baradaran’s book, along with other recent works like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, emphasizes how discrimination was not merely an expression of the bigotry held by individual people or organizations; it is tightly woven into the laws and incentive structures created by government agencies. The problem was systemic; the solutions would have to be as well. “The thing that my book shows, hopefully, is that you don’t need to put racism in to get racism out,” Baradaran says. “The structure as we have it will produce racism unless you’re very, very deliberate about how to remedy these things.”


Mitchell decided to reach out to the author. Baradaran has fielded plenty of consulting requests from companies looking to whitewash their brands in the face of a shifting American mood on race. Still, she was willing to take Mitchell’s call because she felt Netflix was already making a good-faith effort to operate with diversity in mind. The company had a larger percentage of Black workers, at 8 percent, than Facebook, Google, or Microsoft. The streamer had also invested a significant amount of money in developing a wide slate of productions featuring Black actors and directors like Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee, who praised the company. “Netflix creates stories,” Baradaran says. “That’s Netflix’s market, and in that market they’re doing well at representation and diversity. That’s what I would say for other businesses—look at your market and see how you can make changes there.”

Baradaran also sensed an earnest desire in Mitchell to help small Black businesses like his family’s bakery. So she volunteered to help him shape his proposal. “She was the one who kind of inspired us to think bigger,” Mitchell says. With Baradaran’s input, Mitchell began drafting a two-and-a-half-page memo outlining his vision for how Netflix could sustainably support Black banks. From the beginning, he was wedded to the idea that some committed proportion of Netflix’s cash should go toward the effort. “Pegging to the 2 percent meant that, as we grow as a company, our commitment to these communities continues to grow,” Mitchell says.

On May 25, before Mitchell shared his memo with leaders at Netflix, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin. Mitchell watched as protests erupted in major American cities and small rural towns, and conversations about racism were sparked as far away as Singapore, his one-time home. “I think people were just like, we need to do something,” he says. Netflix, like just about every other major American business, tweeted “Black Lives Matter,” but what gains Black people would see from this declaration weren’t clear.

Two days after Floyd’s death, Mitchell sent his memo directly to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. In it, he proposed that the company reallocate some of its cash into Black banks. He called it a “now or never” moment. “It felt like if we don’t do this now, we might miss the opportunity to be impactful,” Mitchell says.

The Netflix boss’s email reply came within an hour: “It’s so capitalistic, it warms my heart.”

On June 30—just two months after Mitchell had begun drafting his memo—Netflix announced its 2 percent commitment, totaling a maximum of $100 million at the initial announcement. A quarter of that money became seed funding for a larger Black economic development fund organized by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a New York–based CDFI that supports programs around the country. Another $10 million was deposited at Hope. Given that the average individual Hope member in 2020 had an account balance of about $1,700, it was a relatively astronomical sum. Hope has said that within two years of the deposit, it should be able to support financing for an additional 2,500 entrepreneurs, home buyers, and consumers of color.

Mitchell had never worked with Shannon Alwyn, Netflix’s director of treasury, before he fired off his memo. But when the project was given a green light, it was her department that became responsible for managing the $100 million. In the past year, the two have become dual spokespeople for the banking initiative. “We think it’s important that corporate America takes the responsibility to try to fix this problem,” Alwyn says. “We would continue to request our peers to follow suit or find a path that works for them.”

For Hope, the Netflix money provided a financial cushion at a time of ballooning costs and falling revenues. In addition to the costs associated with processing so many PPP loans, the company was paying huge amounts of overtime to its staff and had offered $50 million in loan deferments for pre-pandemic borrowers who were struggling. Netflix is earning only 0.1% interest on the deposit, well below the industry-standard rate for such a large sum, which means more of the money can be funneled to Hope's other members.

Beyond that, the Netflix deposit also provided vindication of a strategy born decades ago in a small Mississippi church. And there’s evidence that it may be the start of a trend—in June of this year, PayPal announced that it would also place $10 million in Hope. But these are still only small steps in a long campaign. “The economic justice part of the work is, I think, the continued work of the Civil Rights Movement,” Bynum says. “There’s been a lot of Black banks that have stepped into that void, and that’s certainly what we’re trying to do.”

Around the time Netflix announced its investment in Hope, every major player in Silicon Valley also made a splashy financial pledge toward racial justice. Google committed more than $275 million, including $100 million to amplify Black creators on YouTube and $50 million in financing and grants for Black-owned small businesses. Apple’s $100 million included $10 million for Harlem Capital, a New York–based venture capital firm seeking to fund 1,000 “diverse” startup founders. Microsoft offered $150 million toward diversity and inclusion initiatives and doubled the number of Black-owned suppliers it uses in its operations. According to the Verge, the total commitments to racial justice by Big Tech in the summer of 2020 exceeded $1 billion.

But this is not the first time that corporate America has woken up to the scourge of racism and made loud proclamations that it would help to solve the problem. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., widespread urban riots, and the rise of the Black Panther Party, many Fortune 500 companies embraced efforts to improve Black people’s economic standing, at least on the surface. A Nixon-era nonprofit called the National Center for Voluntary Action coordinated efforts meant to spur investments from large companies in Black-owned businesses. AT&T took out newspaper ads boasting about its support of Black communities.

But substantial investments in Black businesses and families never came, as Baradaran points out in her book. Calls for more tangible direct action, such as large-scale direct investments into inner city communities or reparations for slavery, were ignored in favor of job training programs and small-scale hiring pushes at individual companies. When the economy stalled out in the ’70s, interest in Black economic justice faded along with it. A Harvard Business Review study determined that the short-term embrace of Black finance had been spurred by “fear engendered by the ghetto riots” and “pressures from militants” rather than any fundamental commitment to improving Black welfare in the long term.


Baradaran sees clear similarities between the early-’70s embrace of “Black capitalism” and the corporate response to last summer’s protests. Corporate engagement in social issues typically functions as a pressure release valve to placate the middle class, lest they start to flirt with more radical agendas, while doing little to improve the station of the country’s poor and dispossessed. Black banks “become very cynically used by white policymakers who want to stop short of actual reform,” Baradaran says. “They just hold onto this idea that capitalism will fix it—self-help and Black businesses and Black ownership.”

Today’s tech giants are more generous than their ’70s forebears, nominally, but they’re also considerably wealthier. The top 10 companies in 1970’s Fortune 500 collectively accrued $47 billion in profit, adjusting for inflation; tech’s Big Five alone earned almost $200 billion in 2020. If Google and Apple were to follow Netflix’s lead and pledge 2 percent of their cash reserves, they would pour more than $2.7 billion and $3.8 billion, respectively, into Black economic development.

Despite aligning themselves with a grassroots movement, the big tech firms also continue to oppose structural changes to the American economy that would arguably benefit workers but threaten the companies’ bottom lines. Amazon put a “Black Lives Matter” banner on its homepage last summer and then proceeded to vehemently oppose a unionizing effort at one of its warehouses in Bessemer, Alabama, where employees were mostly Black. Uber has pledged $10 million to becoming an “anti-racist company” but spent nearly $60 million promoting a California ballot initiative that allows the company to continue depriving drivers of health care and employment benefits by classifying them as contractors. And Netflix pays a federal income tax rate of less than 1 percent, a paltry figure that earned the ire of Senator Bernie Sanders during his 2020 presidential campaign.

Moreover, as noble as Netflix’s 2 percent pledge to Black economic initiatives might sound, it isn’t even large enough to merit a mention in the company’s filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Netflix is rich enough that Alwyn, the treasurer, can categorize a $100 million investment as “excess cash.” She says the company will “top up” its investments by the end of the year, though there is no clear timeline for how frequently this will happen. Two percent of Netflix’s cash actually amounts to about $150 million now, because the company benefited wildly from the pandemic, like the rest of the tech giants. But the company has allocated only about $70 million so far—the money to Hope, the money for the Black economic development fund, and a more recent $35 million pledge to initiatives battling inequities in housing.

“Marketing is not disclosure,” Baradaran points out. But the fact that Netflix is funneling this effort through its treasury department, rather than a diversity and inclusion committee or philanthropic arm, does at least gesture toward a sense that the investment might be serious and sustained. The real question is whether the company will maintain its commitment when the next bust arrives, and not just when its cash reserves are growing. One reason corporate support of Black businesses collapsed in the 1970s was that a recession forced firms to tighten their belts. For now, though, Netflix is framing the initiative as an investment—a mutually beneficial opportunity for growth. The company also hasn’t ruled out integrating Black-owned banks more closely into its financial portfolio in the future. “We’re having a lot of conversations with these banks about what they can do to improve, so that we could use them in more of an operations-type capacity,” Alwyn says. “We’re not quite there yet, but over time, hopefully, we will be.”

New Orleans is coming back to life in fits and starts. Edward Hogan’s Legendary Tours buses rumbled through the French Quarter this summer as visitors trickled back into the city. After seeing how his previous bank ignored him during the pandemic, he’s switched all of his business banking over to Hope. Kirby Jones is still running La Vie en Rose. For a time she had a storefront in Central City, and Kathy Saloy, the Hope executive, would occasionally host business meetings there.

In January, Congress approved another $284 billion for a second round of PPP loans. Altogether, Hope processed 5,216 of these federal loans between 2020 and 2021, dwarfing the 50 commercial loans the credit union issued in 2019. The average amount was $26,814, well below the national average of $71,500, an indication that Hope was meeting people who otherwise might have fallen through the cracks.

Early in 2021, Sankofa received a second PPP loan through Hope for $66,000. But another year also brought another crisis for the nonprofit, in the form of Hurricane Ida, which killed 26 people in Louisiana and plunged the city of New Orleans into darkness for nearly two weeks in some neighborhoods. Sankofa, which bought a backup generator in response to the storm, once again threw open its doors, organizing an emergency food drive. The nonprofit distributed more than 15,000 pounds of food and served 1,000 meals over the course of six days.

Fortunately, even as her city continues to be hit by disasters, Ferdinand has also been able to make headway on her main goal of mitigating the slow-rolling crisis of food insecurity and raising the economic prospects of the Lower Ninth Ward. Four blocks from the Sankofa food pantry, the nonprofit’s next major project is under construction: a 1,600-square-foot corner market that will offer some of the only fresh produce in the area, plus an upstairs kitchen that will host classes in healthy cooking. If all goes according to plan, the new store will employ 11 people. Hope is providing the $423,000 loan for the construction, an example of what a Black-owned financial institution can help accomplish when its resources grow.

While Hope also often finds itself helping Black people simply stay afloat during crises, its true goal is still to expand opportunities for them in normal times and to push more powerful firms  like Netflix to do the same. In the Lower Ninth Ward, that kind of expansion seems to be underway. Sankofa’s corner store, Ferdinand says, is part of a broader revitalization effort that is just getting started, with investment building on investment. “The more new buildings you have in the area,” she says, the more you “influence other businesses to want to set up their business.” Put money and faith into a community, and watch them multiply. 

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