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(A message to the Southern Bancorp employees)

It’s unlikely that there is one among us who has not heard about the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota by the police and the ensuing protests and demonstrations that have engulfed our country. From New York City to Arkadelphia and places in between, Americans of all races are crying out that Black Lives Matter.

George Floyd’s death and world-wide reactions have had me on an emotional rollercoaster, from anger and frustration, to fear for my two children, to deep sadness, and yet also to cautious optimism. I must admit, that I have tried to write this message for more than a week, but I have had difficulty figuring out what to say to my teammates at Southern.

I am not sure why the killing of this particular unarmed Black man has caught the attention of America. This is neither the first time a Black person has been killed by the police nor the first time it has been captured on video. In recent years, the names of Black people like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, to list just a few, have become household names. But there appears to be something different about George Floyd’s death. Perhaps it’s the cumulative effect of so many killings, or maybe it’s the bold reactions and demonstrations by people of all races against this senseless death, or maybe it’s the fact that we are in the middle of a global pandemic. Whatever the reason, I am truly hopeful that this time is different, because change is necessary – and not just in law enforcement.

It’s great that so many people are voicing their opposition to racism, but as a community development financial institution we have a duty to do more than simply talk. We must act when we see inequality and even more so when we see inequity. The CDFI industry, of which Southern is a founding member, envisions a country where “all people and communities have access to the investment capital and financial services they need to prosper.”

The same pervasive systemic racism that has allowed many police departments and criminal justice systems across America to ignore the pleas of Black families who have long suffered from police brutality is also the root cause of many of the disparities we see among races in many facets of life, from education, to healthcare, to wages and wealth, and access to financial services. It is in these last areas, wages, wealth and access to financial services, where we can make the most difference in the lives of our customers and communities.

Why do I say that Southern Bancorp has a duty to act? Because our founders established Southern Development Bancorporation in part to help combat the systemic racist practices that have prevented many Black Americans from fully accessing the America Dream. Modeled after ShoreBank in Chicago, which was founded in response to the government-endorsed practice of denying Black families bank loans, a.k.a. “red-lining,” the founders of Southern believed that our company could make a difference in the lives of marginalized people. They even stated early on that part of our mission is to “improve the plight of African Americans.” In fact, they specifically chose to work in the Arkansas Delta because of the large number of Black people there who had long suffered from the lingering effects of slavery. It is this same founding purpose that we must continue to embrace today to help our communities and this nation recognize the fact that it will take more than words for our country to live out its constitutional promise, that we are all created equal. It will take intentional action to destroy and dismantle systemic racism.

So where do we start? And what is your role as a Southern Bancorp team member?

  1. We must have open and honest conversations about race. We are going to have a series of discussions throughout the company about race, unconscious bias and racism. I encourage you to have similar discussions among yourselves. I know these discussions may be tough and sometimes uncomfortable, but if we are ever going to make progress, we have to be willing to talk in a constructive manner, respecting the opinions of every team member.
  1. We must intentionally work to increase opportunities for Black people, as well as Latinos, women, low-wealth individuals and families, and others who have not always been served well by the traditional financial system. We must acknowledge that government action, inaction and the silence of many good people continues to play a role in denying equality for all people. Further, we must acknowledge that banks, more concerned about profits than people, have contributed to the devaluation of certain communities. Even though red-lining was outlawed in 1968, today Black families are denied mortgage loans at a rate significantly higher than Caucasian families, and when approved they are often charged higher interest rates. According to a report from the US Conference of Mayors, Black-owned businesses are denied loans three times more often than Caucasian-owned businesses. Our BHAGS, supporting homeownership, job creation and retention, and increased savings, are key drivers of our work to be wealth builders for everyone, and therefore, we must examine our own policies, practices and procedures to determine if our actions are contributing to disparities. Then, we must develop products and services that will specifically help provide full access to the financial system to those for whom it has long been denied.
  1. We must be willing to lead the financial services industry in becoming more diverse, more inclusive and creating more equitable solutions that empower all people. While there is always room for improvement, we should recognize and celebrate that our company has embraced diversity in many respects. Southern’s three boards of directors, all chaired by African Americans, are among the most diverse financial institution boards in America. Our bank board, by way of example, consist of twelve members, six White, six Black, with three women, one serving as chair of our Audit Committee. I am proud that even before George Floyd’s death, our boards made it a 2020 company goal to create a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee made up of board and staff members, charged with charting Southern’s future to be a leader in the banking industry. We have held two meetings and were in the process of adding 15 – 20 team members to the DEI Committee when COVID-19 hit. Now that we are more accustomed to operating with coronavirus restrictions, our boards have instructed us to renew our work to establish the DEI Committee. Soon we will be announcing the team members who have agreed to join this Committee to help direct Southern’s efforts over the next decade. Our goal is to be the leading financial institution in terms of diversity of our staff, management and vendors; inclusivity of ideas and people from various races, religions, abilities and sexual orientations; and the development of products and services specifically designed to address the inequities experienced by people of color, women and those who have not been traditionally served well by the financial service industry.
  1. We must not tolerate discrimination and racism in any form. Recently, a belligerent man called our call center. This caller was upset after seeing a news interview where I discussed the business community’s role in addressing racism. This man called me, Karama Neal and team members in our call center racist. I hate that our team members had to endure this type of treatment. Both John Olaimey and I have spoken with our team members in the call center to let them know that we support them, and that they do not have to accept this type of verbal abuse. In the future, we have let them know to forward such callers to one of us. Let me be clear, we have zero tolerance for such behavior from anyone.

I am proud of the work we do each day at Southern Bancorp, and I hope you are as well. We have chosen to be a public benefit corporation and a certified B-Corp because we believe that long-term shareholder value requires us to consider the impacts of our actions on society and the environment, just as much as we consider making a profit. Likewise, as a member of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, we believe that we have an important role to play in financing the change we want to see in the world. The time for change is now. We must seize this moment.

The racial divide in America is deeply rooted in the four hundred year history of Blacks in the country, from slavery, to Black Codes, to Jim Crow, to racially restrictive covenants, red-lining and the civil rights movement; and as such, we know that racism will not be resolved overnight – nor without intentional actions will it ever be resolved. As CEO, I challenge each team member, board member, investor, partner and supporter to commit to being an active participant in our work to help make our markets, America, and the world more accepting of diversity, more inclusive and more equitable.

“Tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

― Martin Luther King Jr.