Watch Rashida Tlaib Grill Bank CEOs Who Are Confused About Environmental Racism

Rashida Tlaib: “I just want to ask one by one, yes or no, are you familiar with the term ‘environmental racism’?” Bank CEOs: “Vaguely,” “Only vaguely,” “No.”
June 3, 2021, 3:21pm
Rep. Rashida Tlaib schools CEOs of some of the world's largest banks on environmental racism at a recent House Committee hearing
Rep. Rashida Tlaib schools CEOs of some of the world's largest banks on environmental racism at a recent House Committee hearing. Screenshot via YouTube

The CEOs of the largest banks in the U.S. have only the vaguest idea of what “environmental racism” means, even as their companies invest hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and gas projects whose pollution often falls hardest on communities of color.

That’s one revealing takeaway from a recent House Financial Services Committee hearing, where some of the most powerful financial executives in the world faced hard questions about the human impacts of fossil fuel production from progressive Democratic lawmakers. 

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“I just want to ask one by one, yes or no, are you familiar with the term ‘environmental racism’?” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, whose Michigan district includes a majority-Black area of southwest Detroit where residents breathe some of the worst air in the state. 

“Vaguely, yes,” replied JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who last year took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.  

“Only vaguely; I don’t know the specific definition of it,” said Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser, who according to Bloomberg is attempting to turn her bank into an “antiracist institution.” 

“No, I’m not,” said Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, who in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd last year wrote in an internal email that “the pain, fear, sadness and anger felt by the black community, and also by the vast majority of people globally, is palpable.”

Neither Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf, or Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, all of whom have made commitments to fighting racial injustice over the past year, could not provide a definition either. 

Black People Have Been Saying 'We Can't Breathe' for Decades

“You all should know and be familiar with the term environmental racism because for generations, Black, brown, and Indigenous communities have seen the fossil fuel corporations use your banks to finance and construct oil and gas refineries, petrochemical plants, and pipeline projects,” Tlaib said. “It has literally left us with high rates of asthma, cancer—countless families have lost their loved ones too soon because they were forced to breathe the polluted air your banks financed.”

Tlaib gave as example the Marathon Refinery, a 250-acre oil processing facility and tank farm near the Boynton neighborhood of Detroit, which has received 15 violation notices from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy for pollution since 2013. The area, which includes more than two-dozen industrial sites, is 71 percent Black. 

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Detroit is the 10th worst metro area in the country when it comes to asthma attacks for Black children, which a 2017 report from the NAACP and other groups said is linked to oil and gas exposure.  

About 56 percent of health-harming air emissions from oil refineries land hardest on people of color, an April report from Greenpeace and the Movement for Black Lives calculated, despite non-white communities being 39 percent of the overall population.

“These polluting projects haven’t been built in wealthy neighborhoods, as you all know. They have been built on land and front-line communities of color, contaminated our air, polluting our water for generations to come,” Tlaib said. 

The six CEOs at the hearing lead financial institutions that together have invested over $1.1 trillion in fossil fuels since the 2015 Paris climate agreement, according to a recent report from several environmental groups entitled Banking on Climate Chaos. 

“They may be only ‘vaguely aware; of the name, but bankers clearly know about environmental racism—they lent the money to build the pipelines and chemical plants that endanger people's lives,” environmentalist and author Bill McKibben told VICE News. “You don’t get a Cancer Alley for free: it takes a banker, willing to overlook health and safety in the name of quicker, higher returns.”

When the bank CEOs were asked by Tlaib if any of them live near an oil refinery, all of them replied “no.”

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.