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Opinion: No, ‘Wokeness’ Isn’t the Reason Silicon Valley Bank Collapsed

By Justin Ray, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE – March 15, 2023

The fight against the amorphous, catch-all phrase “wokeness” by the right has seen some odd moments, but it’s hard to top the recent discourse involving Silicon Valley Bank.

Journalists, politicians and pundits are trying to use diversity as a scapegoat for the institution’s collapse. Wall Street Journal columnist Andy Kessler was widely panned for claiming that the bank may have been distracted by an over-commitment to diversity.

“In its proxy statement, SVB notes that besides 91% of their board being independent and 45% women, they also have ‘1 Black,’ ‘1 LGBTQ+’ and ‘2 Veterans.’ I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided this mess, but the company may have been distracted by diversity demands,” he wrote.

Other Rupert Murdoch-owned media properties have also been pushing the narrative that SVB’s collapse took place due to an over-commitment to diversity. On Fox News, House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. James Comer called it, “one of the most woke banks.” Fox News also quoted former CKE Restaurants CEO and current Heritage Foundation visiting fellow Andy Puzder as saying: “If you’re not focused on how your company is governed and run, if you’re just focused on being woke, you’re going to have problems.”

In a New York Post story headlined, “While Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, top executive pushed ‘woke’ programs.” In another story, the Post quoted “a tech insider” as saying that SVB was “the bank of the Democrats.” “If it was the Bank of MAGA, what are the chances it would be bailed out?” the person added. “There’s not a chance in hell.”

But as New York Magazine’s Kara Swisher said during an appearance on MSNBC: “It’s a nonsense, nonsense argument.”

First, Kessler himself admits that SVB’s board was still mostly male and mostly white, calling into question how deep its commitment to diversity actually was. Then, there is the actual truth about the downfall: As The Chronicle reported, SVB failed mainly because it invested a lot of customer deposits into long-term Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds. They fell in value when the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates. Then, when many customers needed to withdraw cash as the tech boom fizzled, it had to sell those bonds at a loss.

Fox News’ liberal pundit, Jessica Tarlov, co-host of the roundtable show “The Five,” pointed out another problem with the woke narrative. She said SVB “basically was” a “MAGA” institution, highlighting that conservative political donor and venture capitalist Peter Thiel was one of SVB’s top account holders. His Founders Fund pulled all its money from the bank a week before the government took over. Thiel donated $1.25 million to former President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. He also financially supported many Republican candidates during the past midterm elections.

Moreover, many businesses with SVB accounts have their own issues over racial disparities in leadership. Online-styling service Stitch Fix, for example. In 2021, 90% of its leadership was white or Asian American, with Black people and Latinos each making up 2.5% of top executives.

In 2019, NBC News found more than 100 accounts that featured extremist and racist content on the popular online gaming platform Roblox — another company directly impacted by SVB’s collapse. Offensive content “included longstanding neo-Nazi coded language, phrases like ‘Jews to Gas!’ and user names including ‘WhiteRaceBestRace.’”

BuzzFeed, yet another client of SVB, has been criticized by its staff for “the overwhelming whiteness of newsroom leadership.” A source told Vanity Fair that in 2020 that “over the past couple of years, it feels like there’s been a bit of a drain where the company doesn’t work as hard to retain people of color.”

Finally, it is possible that Trump shares some of the blame. A 2010 law widely referred to as Dodd-Frank strengthened regulations for banks that held at least $50 billion in assets. They were required to maintain certain levels of funding. A 2018 law spearheaded by Republicans and signed by then-President Trump rolled back banking regulations and raised the threshold to $250 billion, meaning medium-size banks were exempted.

The belief that diversity commitments led to SVB’s fall feeds into the narrative that when institutions take steps to repair past injustices they crumble. It is the latest tool in the arsenal of those who have sought to dismantle all efforts to aid or even give marginalized people representation. There is no institution too small; they have attacked libraries, bicycle shops and even M&M’s.

In San Francisco, a proposal to issue several forms of reparations to the city’s Black residents has met a similar backlash. The narrative that diversity is toxic has to be destroyed because as institutions try to repair past injustices, these “woke” attacks will grow more fervent and may undo much-needed work.

The narrative also ignores an important lesson from the whole debacle. As Zach Teutsch, founder of a financial advisory firm Values Added Financial, told Vox: “If anything, the problem at the failed banks was a lack of diversity, especially a lack of diversity in their balance sheets.”

Justin Ray is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times and Columbia Journalism Review.

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