In November, Miami mayor Francis Suarez — who has vowed to make his city the crypto capital of the world — announced that he was taking his next paycheck in Bitcoin.
Not to be outdone, then-newly elected New York City mayor Eric Adams tweeted that he would be taking his first three paychecks and throwing them into the cryptocurrency pool.
“In New York we always go big, so I’m going to take my first THREE paychecks in Bitcoin when I become mayor,” Adams tweeted. “NYC is going to be the center of the cryptocurrency industry and other fast-growing, innovative industries! Just wait!”
And then it all went to pot. For both men.
On Jan. 21, Adams, Suarez, and the rest of the world watched as cryptocurrency tanked, taking a 47% nosedive from its all-time high in November. Folks didn’t lose their shirts; they lost their pants, shoes, socks and underclothes.
Just look at Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who elected to take his $750,000 salary in Bitcoin. It was a huge gamble that hasn’t paid off. After Bitcoin’s crash, Beckham would net somewhere around $35,000 off that salary if he cashed in now. Don’t worry about poor Odell though — he still has several team-based incentives that could net him some $3 million this year, so he’s going to be fine.
But for the paycheck-to-paycheck workers who can’t gamble a year’s worth of pay on what essentially amounts to Monopoly money, cryptocurrency has become a pipe dream or a mythical golden ticket to wealth and financial freedom that might as well be about as real as a 7-Eleven in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Some Black people truly believe that cryptocurrency is a bridge to close the wealth gap, or that it has the magical ability to undo years of redlining — which effectively ruined property values for Black people — and the economic impact of racism in financial institutions.
In 2021, Time magazine covered the Black Blockchain Summit on Howard University’s campus. This was the opening paragraph of the piece: “At the Black Blockchain Summit, there is almost no conversation about making money that does not carry with it the possibility of liberation.”
A study found that in 2021, Blacks and Latinx make up 32% of the U.S. population and 64% percent of the country’s unbanked. After decades of being systematically frozen out of banking or forced to pay higher interest rates or more transaction fees than their white counterparts, it makes sense that cryptocurrency would seem like a way to wealth. But, is it even worth the trouble?
I don’t say that lightly. I spent days researching cryptocurrency to have a firm base and depth of understanding, and I still have no idea what it is. Well, that isn’t entirely true. It sounds like Disney dollars but less tangible, less transactional and less stable. Seriously, this is an actual definition of cryptocurrency I found on a page called, “What is Cryptocurrency? [Everything You Need To Know!]”
“Cryptocurrency is an internet-based medium of exchange which uses cryptographical functions to conduct financial transactions. Cryptocurrencies leverage blockchain technology to gain decentralization, transparency and immutability.”
Yep, got it.
Despite these intense definitions and the use of something called a “blockchain,” it hasn’t stopped Black and Latinx people from investing in the highly volatile mystery money. Some 23% percent of African Americans and 17% of Hispanic Americans own some form of cryptocurrency compared to 11% of white Americans, according to recent surveys conducted by Harris Poll and provided to USA Today.
I don’t know that all first-time get-rich-quick investors involved in cryptocurrency fully understand what they’re investing in. Still, something tells me that hearing the stories of small investments turned into large profits being shared on social media might have something to do with it. Add to that years of being denied fair banking, or being charged larger fees for nominal transactions, or completely being devalued as a customer, and I understand the fascination with hopping on the money train earlier, even if you don’t have all the facts.
“I usually ask people two questions when they come to me wanting to put their money into cryptocurrency: What is your goal and what is your time frame?” Joel Harrison, head of Harrison Affiliates, who spends his days investing, coaching, and consulting about all things stock-related, told HuffPost. “Those are the questions most people can’t answer.”
And that might be because, during the onset of digital currency, people of color were bombarded with celebrities pushing crypto on them as if it was a new underground railroad out of financial slavery. It almost felt predatory.
Cobinhood got Jamie Foxx to endorse what they claimed was the world’s first free cryptocurrency exchange. Cobinhood started as one of the biggest crypto exchange sites, but in 2021, it started cutting integral pieces of its setup, including live-person customer service.
In 2018, boxer Floyd Mayweather and producer DJ Khaled were paid promoters of the now-defunct Centra Tech cryptocurrency. The whole thing turned out to be a scam, and Centra Tech founders Raymond Trapani, Sohrab Sharma and Robert Farkas “were found guilty of trying to defraud investors with their ICO (initial coin offering),” according to Bleacher Report.
When CashApp began accepting Bitcoin, they needed someone to hit the right audience with their message. That person was the CEO of Hot Girl Enterprises, MC Megan Thee Stallion, who noted during her commercial, “Bitcoin for Hotties,” that “With my knowledge and your hustle, you’ll have your own empire in no time.”
Mike Tyson even has his own Bitcoin app, “Mike Tyson Bitcoin.” The branded wallet, which was created by the company Bitcoin Direct, allows users to store, purchase or sell the digital currency bitcoin.
“Tyson is a universal star,” Bitcoin Direct’s CEO, Peter Klamka, said in a press statement, per CNBC. “People around the world of all ages know Mike Tyson, and as such Tyson’s potential to expand the Bitcoin market is dramatic.”
And that’s it exactly! If people believe in the endorsement of Mike Tyson, or flamboyant millionaire Floyd Mayweather, or famed music makers DJ Khaled and Megan Thee Stallion, then they don’t necessarily need to know what they’re selling to want to buy into it.
Don’t listen to me, though. Listen to the sage financial advisers the Wu-Tang Clan. In 1993, the Shaolin Island natives gave us the helpful acronym to remind us of the importance of sound financial decision-making: “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me).”
In 2017, It was announced that Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killah was starting a cryptocurrency company.
One of the company’s top brass was leery of the rapper’s influence on people who might listen to his pitch without fully understanding what he’s talking about.
“I think the interest of celebrities is a bit of a double-edged sword,” Brett Westbrook, chief executive at Cream Capital, told CNBC.
“I personally think that anything that puts cryptocurrencies in front of the eyes of everyday people is a great thing for the markets overall. On the other hand, I believe it’s important that celebrities know the importance of their endorsements and understand the underlying principles of blockchain technology,” he said.
“The last thing we need is a household name promoting what turns out to be a scam ICO.”
And therein lies the rub. Digital currency is such a place of possibility for many folks who’ve felt spurned by traditional banking. They see digital currency as an alternative way to make it rich. Sadly — and this is the soft part that won’t get said out loud — the most susceptible group, most likely to see cryptocurrency the same way they would the roulette wheel in Vegas, are people of color.
“There has been a long history of discrimination in investments,” John Gerzema, CEO of the Harris Poll, told USA Today. “And that could be why we have seen a wide demography of interest and inclusivity in crypto — because it’s new, open and seemingly has fewer barriers to entry.”
So you have this magical money train, an underserved banking community and Black celebrities pushing cryptocurrency on to them. I mean, what could go wrong?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, People in their 20s and 30s reported losing far more money to crypto investment cons than any other type of fraud.
“Since October 2020, reports have skyrocketed, with nearly 7,000 people reporting losses of more than $80 million on these scams. Their reported median loss? $1,900,” the FTC reported.
But Harrison said that’s only a problem if you don’t know what you’re doing. This might be most of us, considering cryptocurrency doesn’t come with the most user-friendly explainers.
“Statistically, cryptocurrency has been the biggest producer of wealth in the last 10 years,” Harrison said. “But the one thing I don’t like is how people are approaching the crypto market. They’re not understanding value or market capitalization. And that’s where you are going to make your money.”
Ahhh, yes. Market capitalization. Got it.
Harrison believes that the hip-hop community, superstar athletes and the world’s wealthiest people talking about the impact of crypto helped hook Black people on the currency.
“You have Nas rapping about it, Elon Musk and Apple CEO Tim Cook talking about it, and once you start hearing the wealthiest people in the world talking about it, it becomes really mainstream,” he said.
Harrison isn’t worried about Odell Beckham Jr.’s significant loss. “He’ll be all right,” he said. Large drops have happened before. He added that he’s been buying a bit of Bitcoin every two weeks for the last three years.
“And I’ve been doing well,” Harrison said.
Well, I’m ready to invest. Now, if someone could just explain what I’m investing in.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.