NEW YORK — The software developer has invested his savings in cryptocurrencies twice, only to lose it all, but he still promotes them in the black community and would like to get back into himself.
A recent college graduate and single mother is digging hopefully into bitcoin after attending a Jay-Z-sponsored cryptocurrency workshop at the public housing estate where the hip-hop star grew up.
But the former head of a cryptocurrency exchange is frustrated by the false promise of a cryptocurrency to help her family in Ethiopia’s war-torn region of Tigray.
Everyone was attracted to the idea of cryptocurrencies as a way to accumulate wealth outside of traditional financial systems with a long history of racial discrimination and indifference to the needs of low-income communities. But the cryptocurrency crash over the past year has dealt a blow to that narrative, fueling a debate between those who continue to believe in its future and naysayers who say misleading publicity and celebrity hype have attracted vulnerable people to the risky and unproven asset class.
The collapse of two cryptocurrency banks this month, Silvergate Capital Corp. and Signature Bank complicates the picture. Their failure was a setback for crypto companies that relied on banks to convert digital currencies into US dollars. However, the crisis has strengthened bitcoin, the oldest and most popular digital currency, by fueling distrust in the banking system that fueled the emergence of cryptocurrencies in the first place.
Mariela Regalado, 33, and Jimmy Bario, 22, neighbors in the Marcy House complex in Brooklyn, started investing $20 or $30 in bitcoin every two weeks or so after attending the “Bitcoin Academy,” a Jay-Z-sponsored workshop last summer. and Jack. Dorsey, co-founder of Block Inc., the parent company of the Cash App mobile payment system.
“I don’t see anything in this that will take me out of Brooklyn and buy me a $2 million mansion in Texas,” said Regalado, an educational consultant and mother of the toddler. But if it happens, I’m all for it.
Only a small minority of the US population owns cryptocurrencies, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, its adoption has increased as low interest rates have made borrowing money and investing in risky assets more attractive. Prices peaked in 2021, and a plethora of apps, exchanges, and even ATM-like crypto machines have made it easy to buy digital coins.
But the shortcomings of crypto came to the fore after prices plummeted in 2022, wiping out millions of investments and leading to a cascade of bankruptcies and layoffs at crypto exchanges, lenders and other companies. Along with volatility, cryptocurrency lacks protections such as deposit insurance as it is not controlled by any one entity. The largely unregulated industry is prone to scams, hacks and scams.
Cryptocurrencies are built on decentralized ledgers—usually a blockchain—allowing peer-to-peer transactions without an intermediary such as a bank or government. This still attracts many people who face barriers to traditional ways of accumulating wealth, such as home ownership, college education or the stock market, says Terry Bradford, a payments specialist at the Kansas City Federal Reserve, who has researched the popularity of cryptocurrencies among many blacks. investors.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people being talked out of crypto, even though we watched what happened,” Bradford said.
According to Pew Research Center surveys in 2021 and 2022, about 20% of black, Hispanic, and Asian American adults have bought, exchanged, or used cryptocurrencies, compared to 13% of white adults. The Bradford study, which examined data from the Pew Research Center and the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, found that black investors were more likely to own cryptocurrencies than stocks or mutual funds, while the opposite was true for white investors.
Black and Hispanic crypto enthusiasts have formed social media groups, written books, and hosted summits to promote minority developers in the space and champion the potential of blockchain technology to create fairer systems in finance and beyond.
But crypto companies have also sought to capture a broader market of retail investors through lucrative sponsorship deals with celebrities and sports teams, many of which have targeted black and Hispanic consumers directly, touting crypto as an economic equalizer.
Coin Cloud, a cryptocurrency ATM company that has filed for bankruptcy, has launched an ad in which director Spike Lee mocks “old money” as “exploitative”, “depressive” and “white” and cryptocurrency as “positive” and ” inclusive”.
Tonantzin Carmona, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who researches the impact of crypto on minority communities, said that for inexperienced investors, such high-profile hype easily masks the shortcomings of crypto.
Carmona believes the marketing of cryptocurrencies to racial minorities is part of a legacy of “predatory inclusion” in the tradition of payday loans and subprime mortgages — risky services that promise access to finance that would otherwise be out of reach.
“You will have a marginalized group, a community that has historically been denied access to products, services, opportunities, and suddenly they are told that they will have access, perhaps to some alternative,” Carmona said. “But this access is often accompanied by conditions that undermine the benefits or endanger these very communities.”
Rahwa Berhe first started investing in crypto while studying alternative financial products during his master’s program at the University of Washington in Seattle. The Chicago native tried to build a career in crypto, leading the exchange’s digital asset compliance team for four years, only to feel isolated as a black woman.
“It’s like you’ve taken all the technical and financial brothers and brought them together. I didn’t know where I fit in,” Berhe said.
Her frustration deepened when cryptocurrency failed to help her family in Tigray during the conflict from 2020 to 2022 because the lack of infrastructure and access to electricity made transfers impossible. When she tried to point out these realities to some members of the crypto community, she was dismissed as “negative” due to social media posters lightheartedly celebrating that the #eth hashtag for Ethiopia introduces people to the digital coin ether.
Berhe is currently working with the Stanford University Research Lab to explore how decentralized web tools can be used to archive Africana artifacts. As far as cryptocurrencies are concerned, they are done for now.
“It was great until it was gone,” Berhe said.
Crypto proponents argue that minority communities deserve access to a potentially lucrative asset class that is here to stay. Many believe another boom is inevitable and compare last year’s crash to the dot-com crash of the 2000s, which not only failed to kill the tech industry, but weeded out bad players and propped up winners like Amazon.
André Mego, program manager at Bitcoin Academy, said that cryptocurrencies are an affordable way to teach financial literacy in a community where many consider concepts like investing in wealth creation to be abstract and out of reach. At the end of the summer workshop, participants each received $1,000 in bitcoin, most of it through the Cash App, which launched bitcoin trading in 2018.
“When we talk about accessibility, it motivates. Because anyone thinking about investing might be thinking, “This is a big deal in the future.” This is what I have to save so much money for. I don’t know if I’m allowed to do this. Am I participating in this conversation at all?” Mego said.
Bario said the Bitcoin Academy workshop at Marcy Houses was his first meaningful exposure to personal finance, although he graduated from Lafayette University last spring with a degree in economics. Growing up, he said, investing didn’t seem like a viable option for his family, which depended on the income of his father, who worked as a taxi driver in Honduras.
“I always thought that once you get money, it’s time to spend it — once you get that Friday paycheck,” said Bario, who now works as a football coach.
Omid Malekan, who teaches a course on blockchain and cryptocurrencies at Columbia Business School, hopes the latest crash will dissuade people from the belief that cryptocurrencies are a sure way to get rich quick. But Malekan said the crypto industry needs more diversity, not less, and that young blacks and Hispanics should be encouraged to pursue careers in technology development that he believes will be the future of finance.
“People who are attracted to crypto because of the way the technology works and because of the promise of a more global and accessible financial system — these people need more than just a price drop to scare them away,” Malekan said.
Tyrone Norris, a software developer, said he learned to be careful when buying cryptocurrencies the hard way.
Raised in Washington, D.C., Norris studied computer programming in high school and took courses in college, but never graduated because he could not afford to work full-time. He worked as a contractor, moved around the country, and never had a home or access to a workplace pension plan.
When Norris first decided to invest in crypto, he rummaged through the exchanges and chose MANA, the token that powers the 3D virtual world of Decentraland, because it had the same name as his ex-girlfriend and he saw it as a sign.
He went for broke, emptying his bank account by $4,000. When his investment in MANA doubled, he started betting on the coins he thought would be the most profitable. But one exchange turned out to be a scam, and another based in New Zealand lost millions due to a hack. Norris’ investment dropped to zero, but he returned to the game two years later with another $5,000. Again, he watched it take off and then crash as the “crypto winter” of 2022 arrived.
“I was a beginner – I didn’t understand what I was doing. I invested my cryptocurrency in dangerous places,” Norris said.
He is currently taking a break from software development to focus on creating a hip-hop gaming project with cryptocurrencies. Norris said he has no regrets because the investment introduced him to the possibilities of blockchain.
“I came from nothing,” he said. “I don’t expect anything to be fair.”