Today, we find ourselves in dual public health and economic crises—a situation exacerbated by the Trump administration’s cruel and callous policy decisions, which padded the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of essential workers and other historically marginalized communities. It’s going to take a coordinated, whole-of-government approach to mitigate the unprecedented damage done to the millions of people in America who are struggling to weather these crises. This is not a job for President Joe Biden alone, but the entirety of his administration, including the powerful but little-known Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC). Without a doubt, personnel is policy.
We were elected to Congress by constituents who demanded representation that would legislate equity and prosperity—not hurt and harm. The OCC is an agency responsible for ensuring the safety, soundness, and broad accessibility of financial institutions. To lead the agency, Americans deserve someone with both expertise and a firsthand understanding of the struggles of the people the OCC serves. That’s why we urge President Biden to nominate Mehrsa Baradaran to lead the office.
Professor Baradaran is a first-generation American whose family came to the United States seeking asylum when she was 9 years old. Baradaran’s own experiences make her uniquely qualified to understand what many Americans living on the margins are going through. Today, Baradaran is a law professor specializing in banking law who has dedicated her life to understanding how financial regulation affects everyday people, including its central role in perpetuating and exacerbating the racial wealth gap. A renowned expert, she testified in front of Congress about inclusive banking options that can uplift communities and families that are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” As 1 in 4 American households have little to no access to bank accounts, she has proposed innovative solutions like FedAccounts, and postal banking to bridge the banking divide.
We know that equal access to credit is critical when people are looking to buy a home or start a business; the head of the OCC can guide the agency in helping make that possible. The office also charters new federal banks and creates banking regulations with significant implications for racial and environmental justice. The OCC monitors bank practices to verify that financial entities are treating their customers fairly and complying with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a landmark civil rights statute, passed as a response to redlining, that is meant to ensure financial institutions are not refusing to lend in low- to moderate-income communities. It is critical that the Biden Administration, which has promised to prioritize racial equity in the economic recovery, put the right leader in this position. Baradaran understands the inextricable link between the history of racism and banking in the United States and will protect historically marginalized communities from predatory financial practices and products.
The disparities in wealth and opportunity that the CRA was designed to address have only worsened during the Trump administration. In fact, the OCC recently released a rule allowing lenders to evade state-established interest rate caps and charge consumers exorbitantly high interest rates. At the height of the economic downturn in 2020, the OCC unilaterally “gutted” the CRA, stripping remaining protections for the communities that banks have decided are simply not worth their time or business to serve.
The pandemic has only further exacerbated income inequality in the United States, and the government’s inadequate response has done little to alleviate it. At a time of alarmingly high unemployment rates, President Biden’s choice to lead the OCC can help ensure families have the financial options and support necessary to weather this storm and thrive long after. Professor Baradaran is simply the best person for the job.
President Biden has pledged to address systemic racism in our institutions and bring about racial and economic equity for all. Nominating Professor Baradaran to lead the Office of Comptroller of the Currency would be a demonstrable step in turning these promises into action. Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, who serves as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee on House Financial Services, has expressed support for Baradaran, along with many of our colleagues. That’s because we know she will work to uplift the historically marginalized and confront the racial wealth gap. The early days of the Biden Administration have focused on the need to address the damage done under the Trump administration. Not only does Professor Baradaran have the background, experience, and expertise to undo the banking deregulation rampant under recent Comptrollers, she has the resolve to tackle the historical policies and practices of financial oppression against Black and brown communities.
There is no one better than Professor Baradaran to serve as our next Comptroller of the Currency. Our communities deserve her advocacy and leadership.
Jamaal Bowman is a former middle school principal and the Democratic Representative for New York’s 16th congressional district. Ayanna Pressley is the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district.