Inside the World of Black Bitcoin, Where Crypto Is About Making More Than Just Money

t the Black Blockchain Summit, there is almost no conversation about making money that does not carry with it the possibility of liberation.

This is not simply a gathering for those who would like to ride whatever bumps and shocks, gains and losses come with cryptocurrency. It is a space for discussing the relationship between money and man, the powers that be and what they have done with power. Online and in person, on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., an estimated 1,500 mostly Black people have gathered to talk about crypto—decentralized digital money backed not by governments but by blockchain technology, a secure means of recording transactions—as a way to make money while disrupting centuries-long patterns of oppression.

“What we really need to be doing is to now utilize the technology behind blockchain to enhance the quality of life for our people,” says Christopher Mapondera, a Zimbabwean American and the first official speaker. As a white-haired engineer with the air of a lecturing statesman, Mapondera’s conviction feels very on-brand at a conference themed “Reparations and Revolutions.” Along with summit organizer Sinclair Skinner, Mapondera co-founded BillMari, a service that aims to make it easier to transmit cryptocurrency to wherever the sons and daughters of Africa have been scattered.

So, not exactly your stereotypical “Bitcoin bro.” Contrary to the image associated with cryptocurrency since it entered mainstream awareness, almost no one at the summit is a fleece-vest-wearing finance guy or an Elon Musk type with a grudge against regulators. What they are is a cross section of the world of Black crypto traders, educators, marketers and market makers—a world that seemingly mushroomed during the pandemic, rallying around the idea that this is the boon that Black America needs.

In fact, surveys indicate that people of color are investing in cryptocurrency in ways that outpace or equal other groups—something that can’t be said about most financial products. About 44% of those who own crypto are people of color, according to a June survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In April, a Harris Poll reported that while just 16% of U.S. adults overall own cryptocurrency, 18% of Black Americans have gotten in on it. (For Latino Americans, the figure is 20%.) The actor Hill Harper of The Good Doctor, a Harvard Law School friend of former President Barack Obama, is a pitchman for Black Wall Street, a digital wallet and crypto trading service developed with Najah Roberts, a Black crypto expert. And this summer, when the popular money-transfer service Cash App added the option to purchase Bitcoin, its choice to explain the move was the MC Megan Thee Stallion. “With my knowledge and your hustle, you’ll have your own empire in no time,” she says in an ad titled “Bitcoin for Hotties.”

But, as even Megan Thee Stallion acknowledges in that ad, pinning one’s economic hopes on crypto is inherently risky. Many economic experts have described crypto as little better than a bubble, mere fool’s gold. The rapid pace of innovation—it’s been little more than a decade since Bitcoin was created by the enigmatic, pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto—has left consumers with few protections. Whether the potential is worth those risks is the stuff of constant, and some would say, infernal debate.

What looms in the backdrop is clear. In the U.S., the median white family’s wealth—reflecting not just assets minus debt, but also the ability to weather a financial setback—sat around $188,200, per the Federal Reserve’s most recent measure in 2019. That’s about eight times the median wealth of Black families. (For Latino families, it’s five times greater; the wealth of Asian, Pacific Island and other families sits between that of white and Latino families, according to the report.) Other estimates paint an even grimmer picture. If trends continue, the median Black household will have zero wealth by 2053. The summit attendees seem certain that crypto represents keys to a car bound for somewhere better.

“Our digital selves are more important in some ways than our real-world selves,” Tony Perkins, a Black MIT-trained computer scientist, says during a summit session on “Enabling Black Land and Asset Ownership Using Blockchain.” The possibilities he rattles off—including fractional ownership of space stations—will, to many, sound fantastical. To others, they sound like hope. “We can operate on an even playing field in the digital world,” he says.

The next night, when in-person attendees gather at Barcode, a Black-owned downtown D.C. establishment, for drinks and conversation, there’s a small rush on black T-shirts with white lettering: SATOSHI, they proclaim, IS BLACK.

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