Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016)

Poster for the film, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016).

In the wake of the 2007-2008 subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, the federal government prosecuted not one of the large banks — not Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, or Wells Fargo — but instead went after Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small, family owned financial services company with seven branches that primarily serve the immigrant community in New York City’s Chinatown, and which was founded by the Sungs, a Chinese-American family of first- and second-generations.

The title of the film is a reference to the widespread public criticism of the government’s response to the crisis, specifically of the Department of Justice’s refusal to prosecute the big banks that were responsible for the global financial crisis. Because these large financial companies were too big to fail, US Banks received $475 billion in federal assistance or bailout money, and because these companies were too big to jail, they paid only a combined $150 billion in fines stemming from their legal settlements. Not a single CEO was criminally prosecuted, and their banks would eventually earn $700 billion in profits in the crisis’ aftermath.

While large US banks were too big to jail, the government still needed a scapegoat to appease the public’s desire to see the banks pay. Abacus, which was concurrently reeling from its own internal crisis stemming from one of its loan officers running a money-laundering operation, proved to be the perfect victim for the public’s blood-lust, and an easy target for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which was at the epicenter of the financial crisis and feeling the brunt of the public’s furor. The Occupy Wall Street movement was birthed in the Financial District, just a year prior to the events in the film.

Despite promptly firing the employee who committed fraud, and despite reporting the incident to Fannie Mae, we watch in the film as the Sung family is taken by surprise when the District Attorney’s office files charges against Abacus for “engaging in a systematic scheme to falsify and fabricate loan applications to the Federal National Mortgage Association.”

That the prosecution of Abacus was all about politics and public relations is made evident in news footage of the arrest of the Abacus employees, as shown in the film. Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney at the time, orchestrated with law enforcement and news media to arrange a perp walk. We watch the twelve Abacus employees being paraded in front of the cameras, heads down, escorted out of Abacus’ offices in chains, single file, on their way to their arraignment. Abacus’ attorney, Kevin Puvalowski, narrates the scene, observing “I’ve never seen a spectacle like this. These people were humiliated intentionally, for no good reason.” Dave Lindorff, a journalist who was following the story, notes the political optics, “It really angered the Chinese community, but so what? They’re not going to decide an election for Vance.”

While Asian Americans are often conceived as a model minority, the truth behind the model minority myth is that it is always used as a cudgel by white supremacists to divide people of color (a problematic phrase, but particularly relevant in this context), using the success of one group to justify the systematic oppression and criminalization of others. When one group is held up as exemplary, it is always implied to be in reference to others, as a criticism of their “failures,” as a way to uphold the myth of meritocracy.

The politicized and racialized prosecution of Abacus, much like the racialized impacts of COVID, also reveals the tenuous position that Asian Americans, and indeed any marginalized group, hold within a minority hierarchy thusly constructed to serve white supremacy. Our inclusion is always at the mercy and whim of how white society constructs us in the moment, in a way that is politically expedient. As Natalia Molina, a University of Southern California professor, writes in Radical History Review, “One way immigration advocates positively constructed Mexicans was by emphasizing this group’s special affinity for manual labor… In contrast, when anti-immigrationists turned their attention to Mexican immigration in the aftermath of the 1924 Immigration Act, they emphasized how unfit Mexicans were, even as laborers.”

Immigrants and other marginalized groups will always be a convenient scapegoat for the ills of society.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is currently streaming for free via PBS’ Frontline.

Ebert: not rated
My rating: 7/10