A 911 call, a racial slur, a refusal to cash a check. This is what it's like for some Black bank customers
Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT) July 2, 2020
(CNN)Paul McCowns walked into an Ohio bank clutching his first paycheck from a new job at an electric company. But instead of cashing the check worth about $1,000, the teller called 911.
As he walked out of the Huntington Bank branch in Brooklyn empty-handed, an officer waiting outside handcuffed him and put him in the back of a police cruiser.
"I have a customer here -- he's not our customer, actually. He's trying to cash a check and the check is fraudulent. It does not match our records," a bank employee says on a recording of the 911 call obtained by CNN.
For many African Americans, what happened to McCowns in December 2018 is a common experience. Banking while Black is another entry in an ever growing list of people calling the police on African Americans doing everyday things.
No data exists on how prevalent the issue is but such cases have made headlines in recent years. Florida civil rights attorney Yechezkel Rodal said he gets calls from Black people all over the nation after his client sued a bank two years ago. Some incidents end in lawsuits or private settlements with the banks -- but many more occur in financial institutions big and small with no repercussions, he said.
In McCowns case, while the bank's staff could not reach his employer to verify the check, he followed protocol and provided two forms of identification and a fingerprint.
The police finally reached his employer and confirmed the check was valid, and let him go. The bank apologized, saying its tellers were being "hyper-vigilant" after a series of incidents involving fraudulent checks. He later cashed his check at a different Huntington branch with no incidents.
"It was highly embarrassing," McCowns said at the time. "The person who made that phone call — that manager, that teller — whoever made that phone call, I feel as though they were judging."
A branch manager used a racial slur against him
Racial profiling in financial institutions happens often, but most people rarely report it or file lawsuits because such cases are difficult to prove, lawyers said. Others just make their deposits or cash their checks and move on.
But with the growing outcry against systemic racism since the killing of George Floyd, more Black people are sharing their banking experiences. Last month, Florida lawyer and businessman Benndrick Watson filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo, accusing a bank manager of using a racial slur while he was trying to open an account.
Watson had a personal checking account at the bank, and was at a branch near Tampa to open a business account for his law firm in April last year. While the banker was searching through corporate records, Watson told CNN, he discovered that he owned a record label business and started asking questions.
"It's almost like they didn't believe I had a business," he said.
The teller brought in a branch manager who started going through Watson's information on his computer. Then the manager suddenly called him a N***er.
"My jaw just literally dropped -- I was scared, I said, 'did he really say that?'" Watson said. "I sat back. He started talking. He started scaring me. It was hard to explain."
The branch manager apologized, saying he did not mean it and describing it as "a slip of the tongue," Watson said. He quickly gathered his things and rushed to his car.
"When you go to the bank, your guard is down. You don't expect to be called a racist word," Watson said. "I was a customer in this bank. I had been to this bank. It physically hurt."