A teenage black boy whistles at a white woman or stares at her a second too long in the 1950s and he gets bludgeoned, shot, attached to a cotton gin and sunk in the river. In the 2000s, finance investment brokers almost break the entire American economy by gambling with risky financial schemes, and then become the target of millions of furious workers and Occupy-ers who lost their 401k and pensions savings, but don’t do much more than wave hostile posters outside the brokers’ windows.
There’s no difference between the two scenarios, at least according to Robert Benmosche, CEO of the “Too Big To Fail”-tagged, multinational financial insurance company AIG that almost went belly up in 2008. When the company was saved, thanks to bailouts from Congress and President George W. Bush, it issued bonuses to its board members, as did many other finance corporations whose accounts took the same plunge.
Americans became understandably astounded that these companies issued bonuses at their expense, and much of that frustration helped trigger the Occupy movement. But Benmosche said that anger was unfounded. As he told The Wall Street Journal (via Ezra Klein at The Washington Post):
The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses, and all that — sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.”
According to the Tuskegee Institute, almost 5,000 people were lynched between 1882 and 1951 for “crimes” as trivial as insubordination — being black and talking back to a white man — or for simply trying to register to vote. AIG brokers got away with almost murdering the U.S. economy and walked away not with noose bruises around their necks, but with millions of dollars in bonuses.
Benmosche’s comments are a reminder of why it’s not people of color who need black history and ethnic studies programs, and also of how detached from reality the one percent really is.