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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

US Businesses Foster Racism By Using African-American Men to Say "No"

This is an awkward post to write, especially during this time of heightened racial tensions.  This is truly trivial compared to some of the stuff that's going on.

I think I've mentioned before that much of my family is African-American.  So although I am a white male, nobody I know -- and nobody who knows me -- considers me racist.  I hedged that somewhat because every once in a while I write a blog post (like this one) that contains some thoughts on race.  And although I think most people would not view those posts as racist, I acknowledge that some people might think there is something racist about them. Or about this post.

All I'm doing here is sharing an observation.  It's not about "race" as such, it's about how American big business uses "race" as part of its customer relations policy.

The observation is that for the last few years, the vast -- and I mean vast, possibly even 100% -- majority of time that I have had a telephone complaint against a U.S. big business where the business has decided to tell me  "no" over the phone, the U.S. big business has tapped a black man -- an African-American male -- to do the job.

Johnnie Cochran (RIP) would have called me racist just for suggesting that I could tell over the phone that I was talking to a black man, and maybe some people still feel the same way.  Hence the hedging above.  But I'm sorry, a certain percentage of black men have a very distinctive way of speaking.  I'm no Henry Higgins, but I know what I hear.

I don't actually have complaints where they have to tell me "no" that often.  I'll list the ones I remember here, and perhaps others having had the same experience will come forward and share their experience -- or maybe convince me that it was just the luck of the draw that in each case, I was told "no" by a black man.

American Express:

Several years ago, I joined Costco and at the time, you could only buy stuff there with an American Express credit card, so I opened an American Express account at the same time.  After a year of too much bulk shopping, I decided to let my membership lapse and stopped using my American Express credit card.  But I didn't realize that I had signed up for automatic renewal, and unbeknownst to me, American Express charged the renewal fee ($50 or whatever), and then month after month kept charging interest on the renewal fee, and penalties for my non-payment.  
At the time I had lots of credit cards sending me zero-balance statements, so I never opened any of the American Express statements.  Believe it or not, this went on for several years.  At one point, I finally opened one, and found that I owed them over $200.  I don't remember the exact amount, it might even have been over $400.  The charges were for the original CostCo fee plus 20% interest plus repeated late payment penalties over several years.
I called American Express, and talked to several nice but powerless people, who finally referred me to a black man who seem to enjoy telling me there was nothing he could do about it, and that there was nowhere else in American Express that I could turn.  I wrote them a letter about the whole thing, along with a partial payment, but never heard back from them.  The letter is on a computer several computers ago; maybe I'll find it some day and post it here.  I did not call them out on their race-baiting tactic of using the African American to say "no," since this was my first experience with this tactic, and I just assumed I had gotten him at random.

Cox Cable:

I pay almost all my bills, including my cable bills, automatically on a credit card.  Unfortunately, every once in a while my credit card gets compromised and I have to get a new one.  And sometimes I forget to notify every business for which I have auto-payment set up of the new card number.  Cox Cable clearly has a policy that says if you pay late, you pay a late payment penalty of $50.  I've actually been charged this penalty 3 times (!) over the past few years, simply due to the fact that I had to cancel my auto-payment credit card.  The first time, I called Cox and spoke to a nice white man who fixed it.  The second time happened at a very busy time in my life.  I was aware of it, and meant to call Cox to get it fixed, but never got around to it.  The next time after that happened more than a year after the second time.  This time I called, and spoke to a nice white woman who fixed it.  But then I asked her about the second time, which had occurred more than a year before.  She said she couldn't fix it, but would try to put me in touch with someone who might be in a position to help me.  And of course, she patched me through to a black man.  And he -- just doing his job, but perhaps enjoying it a little bit -- quite firmly told me that it was simply too late to get that second $50 back.

SunTrust Bank:
About four years ago, I refinanced my mortgage with a mortgage broker, and ended up with a SunTrust mortgage.  I later opened a home equity line with SunTrust, and the local branch persuaded me that I should open up a SunTrust checking account because they had a promotion that said I would get $200 for doing so.  This involved changing my direct deposit to go to SunTrust, and I went ahead and did that.  But I never got the $200.  Of course, it was not supposed to show up immediately -- you had to wait several weeks -- so I stopped checking for a while, and then when I checked I didn't do anything about it, but then finally about two years ago I went into the branch and asked about.  The branch was staffed with all new people.  They had no record of the promotion, but they opened a complaint to check it out.  I never heard back the result of the complaint.  
I recently put a large deposit into my checking account at SunTrust and all of a sudden they wanted to be my friend.  They assigned me to a relationship manager and were calling me every day wanting to talk to me about my money.  So I asked them again about the $200.  They said they would get right on it.  A day or so later I got a call from them (not a black man) telling me they were investigating, and that they'd get back to me in a few business days.  
Then each day for three days in a row, I got a message from a different black man from SunTrust telling me that they had received my complaint, and asking me to call back. I called the third one back, and he told me the call was being recorded.  He told me he had checked with marketing and they had no record of any such promotion.  He said he checked with the local bank, and they had no record of me having enrolled for any such promotion.  We went around and around.  I explained to him that I had no earthly reason for having opened the SunTrust account but for the promotion, and he kept saying there was no record that of either the promotion or any enrollment by me.
He acknowledged that from time to time they do run a promotion like that, but he said that I had never been enrolled in one.  He said that he could not give me the benefit of any promotion (even if there were one running at that particular time, which he said the marketing department refused to admit), unless I had been "enrolled" in it.  I told him then that perhaps the local branch had screwed up by getting me to fulfill all the requirements of the promotion, but never "enrolling" me, but he said the local branch had refused to cover the $200.  He told me that he was from the "President's Office" and that there was nothing he could do.  We parted on good terms, because by now, I understood that he and his race were just being used by an American business to say "no" to me.

Of course, there are some situations in which businesses have helped me out over the phone, even by refunding "late penalty" fees where I simply missed a payment due to my own negligence.  But those calls are never handled by black men -- it's usually a white woman, in fact.

I call this "racial profiling" because the businesses appear to have decided that complaints by white men that "must" be refused are best handled by black men.  And it goes without saying that this business practice almost certainly fosters racism in America.  While I personally am immune (see above), a white person with quasi-racist tendencies will almost certainly become more racist after being on the receiving end of one of these "no" phone calls, especially in a case where he already believes that the company has treated him unfairly.  So yes, racism is alive and well in America, and big business is helping to perpetuate it, all for the sake of cheaper customer dis-service.

I'd be very interested to hear from someone with more information on the subject, or with similar (or different) experiences.

The questions are:

Have you ever called customer service of a big U.S. business with which you have a relationship -- e.g. a bank, a credit card company, an internet service provider, or a phone company -- with a complaint that they refused to fix?  
And if so, what were the race and sex of the person who told you "no"?  
And what is your race and sex?  (I'd be very interested to hear if African Americans customers have a different experience)

And if you've ever worked in customer service, I'd really appreciate hearing from you, even if you tell me that the fact that it's always an African American male was just coincidence.  I'd also be open to hearing that these results are the product of self-selection, in that perhaps only African-American males volunteer to do the "no" job. If I had to guess, that plays a part in it, but it works out just fine for big business, and (as I've already said) it perpetuates racism.


  1. Probably happens for the same reason that Hollywood casts Morgan Freeman as the voice of God, or James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader.

    1. I'm not so sure about that. I think Jones got cast because he has a cool voice, regardless of race.

      And Hollywood's motives with respect to African Americans and racism are usual fairly benign. Deliberate corporate use of black men to say "no" to white men isn't.

  2. Quite the deference for basing your hypothesis on absurdly unscientific anecdotal experiences much? #JustSayin hero; I've enjoyed other consumer notice blog entries from you. This one flies a bit counter to their validity Cap'n.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for writing. Yes, it's a hypothesis based solely on my experience, but nobody has come forward with a different experience, and the hypothesis has come to have predictive value. I'm certainly ready and willing to see it refuted by new facts, but so far, it has held firm, in my experience.

      A hypothesis based on one's own experience is not necessarily "absurdly unscientific" much less wrong. If I go to ten different medical appointments at ten different doctors' offices, and in nine out of those ten cases, the "nurse" who takes my blood pressure is a female, then I can reasonably hypothesize that the next nurse who takes my blood pressure will likely be female. I haven't necessarily "proven" that all nurses are female, but I have a good hypothesis that for whatever reason, my blood pressure will more likely than not be taken by a female nurse. Yes, it's possible that there was non-randomness in my sample that led to skewed results, but the more such "unscientific" data I gather, the more confidence I will have in my hypothesis.

      In this case, given that African-American males are only about 6 or 7 percent of the population, the chances of randomly getting just 5 African-American males in a row are quite small, i.e. less than .07 to the fifth power, which is about 0.00017%.

      Again, I hope this doesn't seem racist; I'm just reporting my experience. If the hypothesis holds, it just shows that African-Americans are better at this job -- the job of saying "no" to white men and perhaps others -- than other demographics, and the marketplace is rewarding them for it.

      If you've had a different experience in an "escalation" situation (i.e. where the Company has decided that it must tell you "no"), do tell.