During the House Financial Services Committee’s FTX hearings last month, Rep. Jesus Garcia (D-Ill.) described crypto as “an entire industry” that “thinks it's above the law,” and then said something that irked me even more than that unhelpful opening generalization.
Crypto companies “are making money using one thing: hype,” Garcia said. “And when the hype runs out, these businesses fail and ordinary investors, especially latecomers who are disproportionately low income, Black and Latino, lose.”
Now, it’s true that many people of color bought crypto in recent years and that, by extension, many have lost money on account of Celsius Network, FTX, Voyager Digital, et al. But there’s a subtext to Garcia’s comment – whether or not he consciously intended it – that patronizingly paints certain communities in the U.S. and elsewhere as ill-informed and vulnerable, denying them agency and blindly missing a bigger story of empowerment.
Take a look at hundreds of grassroots crypto projects led by Blacks and Latinos in the U.S., and at the many crypto-based business models arising in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and you will find large swaths of human beings from income-challenged, marginalized or oppressed communities seeking new ways to take charge of their lives.
There’s a reason why the top four positions in Chainalysis’ activity and purchasing power-weighted country ranking of per-capita crypto adoption are occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines, Ukraine and India and why the sixth-through-10th positions belong to, Pakistan, Brazil, Thailand, Russia and China. And according to a forthcoming report on “Black Experiences in Web3” from the Crypto Research and Design Lab (CRADL), there’s also a reason why the fifth position is occupied by the U.S., the only developed Western country in the list: It’s because of an outsized level of adoption among Black Americans.
Hint for Garcia: The common denominator across this top ten is not Sam Bankman-Fried. FTX’s Super Bowl ads featuring Larry David weren’t subliminally targeting rickshaw drivers in Vietnam, refugees in Ukraine or, for that matter, Black hospitality workers in the U.S. Millions of people worldwide got into this field because they saw a way around a legacy financial system that had kept them from executing on their own untapped potential.
Sure, these marginalized early adopters are still a minority in their communities. Cryptocurrencies are far from universally accepted. And the negative sentiment generated by the 2022 meltdown will slow growth. But the worldwide adoption trend among these groups is on the up and it’s poised over the long term to disrupt the Western financial establishment, which whether it likes to be labeled as such or not, includes privileged “crypto bros” who treated centralized token exchanges as casinos to 10-x their dollar wealth.
These people, once marginalized, are now poised to lead the industry’s recovery from its doldrums.
Change from without, not within
I believe the solutions these outsiders build will end up as the true source of this technology’s promised revolution in the Web3 era. It won’t be like the prior Web2 internet “revolution,” when Wall Street-listed, U.S.-owned Google, Amazon (AMZN) and Facebook disrupted the infrastructure of mainstream commerce by enticing Westerners operating inside those legacy systems to shift to new platform-based business models. The paradigm change is going to emanate from outside the system – from the developing world and from marginalized communities within the developed world.
After the implosion of the “CeFi” trading and lending bubble, it’s the ones bringing local, real-world focused use cases to their communities who now have the opportunity to redefine crypto’s purpose, to separate it from the empty hype of speculation that FTX came to define.
The unpublished CRADL report on Black crypto adoption notes a startling statistic from a Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City survey: Eighteen percent of Black consumers in the U.S. hold cryptocurrencies while only 7% own stocks and 2% mutual funds. By comparison, 12% of white consumers own crypto, while 19% of them own stocks and 12% mutual funds.
The report explores the root cause of this contrast, describing a deep-seated mistrust of the stock market and of the white financial establishment among Black Americans, which stems from the phenomenon of “generational financial trauma” (GFT) and which has in turn fed an appreciation of the crypto narrative of self-empowerment.
A concept that researchers have identified since their studies of Holocaust survivors in the 1960s, GFT is the idea that historical racial injustices are passed on for generations and shape how its victims interact with financial systems.
Slavery is the example par excellence, a source of lasting trauma that, via structural racism and deep-seated mistrust, has imposed burdens on Black Americans for centuries.
If you’re inclined to dismiss such ideas and want descendents of slaves to let bygones be bygones, I urge you to listen to the “Money Reimagined” episode we released on May 21, 2021. It featured Jerry Tardieu, a Haitian author, entrepreneur and politician, and Daniele Jean-Pierre, co-founder and chief operating officer of Zimbali Networks, which is developing digital currency payment products on the island.
There, we talked about the massive loan that France imposed on the Haitian government formed by the ex-slaves who had ousted their former masters in 1804. It was framed as compensation for French slave owners' loss of “property.” The unpayable debt ultimately ended up in the hands of National City Bank of New York, which would later become Citibank. The debt was finally retired in 1947, but not before it had imposed a century-long burden of economic dependency on the impoverished Caribbean nation. It’s understandable that Haitians would hold an abiding mistrust of Wall Street and might be open to Zimbali’s offerings.
From Philippines to Nigeria
For other examples of crypto projects developed by and for local communities, look at the projects showcased in the Web3athon that CRADL explored in partnership with CoinDesk. Winners and standouts included Evolve, which has built a Polygon-based incentivized financial literacy program for women among Black, Indigenous and people of color; IndiGG, a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) for indigenous communities; and the Carbon Coffee Collective, a regenerative financing project providing financing to coffee farms to switch to generative agriculture.
Or consider the phenomenon of Web3 gaming guilds, such as Yield Guild Games from the Philippines or IndiGG DAO, an Indian version. Philippines-based Emfarsis director Leah Callon-Butler, a CoinDesk opinion contributor, describes these communities of play-to-earn gamers as “a great example of a Web3 innovation that is super grassroots and community oriented.” She says there are already 17,500 such Web3 guilds around the world.
Callon-Butler also cites Impact Market, a protocol designed for communities to develop financial inclusion and social-impact projects, as a tool that’s driving other grassroots empowerment projects in developing countries.
These tools and ideas are stirring innovation that’s tailored to local needs everywhere.
In another “Money Reimagined” episode from 2021 my co-host Sheila Warren and I learned from Yele Bademosi, the former CEO of payments app Bundle Africa, and Adia Sowho, a venture builder and operator, about the explosion of decentralized finance (DeFi) innovation underway in Nigeria. There, local developers who are fed up with rampant inflation and a corrupt, oppressive government are building workarounds to the official financial system.
And in yet another episode that included South African digital artist Lethabo Huma, we highlighted the opportunities that non-fungible token (NFTs) posed to Black and other historically underrepresented artists to sell directly to collectors, avoiding the exclusionary practices of art snobs in the white-controlled gallery world.
What’s striking about a lot of these projects is that they’re founded on something more than technological or financial innovation; it’s a form of social innovation, of figuring out how communities can use new governance models and tokenomics to band together in both the common and the individual interest.
The more they proliferate, the more they will start to stand as a challenge to the centralized, hierarchical systems of the West, beholden as they are to the financial system led by Wall Street.
It won’t happen overnight, but it reflects a slow, quiet revolution. Over time, its impact will make the FTX meltdown seem like a blip.
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