On Thursday, former Twitter chief executive and current Block Head Jack Dorsey announced that he was teaming up with rapper Jay-Z to fund a new financial literacy program: The Bitcoin Academy.
The program will target residents of the Marcy Houses public housing projects in Brooklyn where Jay-Z grew up, offering free classes to residents, devices, and data plans. Children aged 5-17 will also be eligible for enrollment in "Crypto Kids Camp" featuring classes on crypto.
“The vision for Bitcoin is that it doesn’t have barriers, but lack of access to financial education is a barrier. It’s still hard to use for everyday necessities. Plus, people need devices and data plans,” the program’s mission statement reads. “This program aims to provide education, empower the community with knowledge, and get rid of some of the barriers so that residents can learn more about Bitcoin specifically and finance in general.”
The project is partnering with Jay-Z's Shawn Carter Foundation, Cash App, Black Bitcoin Billionaire, and Crypto Blockchain Plug. Instructors will "teach you about Bitcoin, how it works, why you should care, and how to build your own financial future."
As for why this is apparently needed: “Our goal is to prove that making powerful tools more available to people enables them to build greater independence,” Dorsey added in a Tweet thread announcing Bitcoin Academy. “Education is where we start. This isn’t just about bitcoin… it’s about long-term thinking, local economies, and self-confidence.”
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Last year in July, Spike Lee did the wrong thing and featured heavily in a crypto ATM ad targeting minorities excluded from the financial system, encouraging them to invest instead in volatile digital tokens. The argument there is analogous to the subtext of The Bitcoin Academy: The only way out of whatever rut you may find yourself in—poverty, discrimination, exploitation—is through crypto.
"Our currency is not current. Old money—as rich as it looks—is flat-out broke," Lee bellowed in the ad, wearing a tweed suit and straw hat while holding a cane. "They call it green, but it's only white. Where's the women, the Black folks, the people of color? Native Americans got a nickel—a nickel! People don't even stop and pick up a nickel outside."
Lee's ad hones in on the fact that a significant number of households are unbanked because they don't trust banks, don't want volatile fees, want more privacy, but also—crucially—can't actually afford a bank account. We’ve also seen this rhetoric before when a Cory Booker staffer took to Twitter to insist crypto held "incredible equalizing power and opportunity" for minorities excluded from the traditional finance system. And yet, the commercial fails to acknowledge that the crypto sector is rife with volatile assets, unpredictable transaction fees, and rampant fraud, and can suddenly eviscerate an investment in the blink of an eye.
As critics have pointed out, these talking points and targeted demographics aren't too far from what we saw in the years before the housing crisis as predatory lenders targeted minorities with subprime loans. Contemporary discussions praised this predation, framing it as a way to equalize power and opportunity for minorities excluded from homeownership, even though the supposed path to inclusion was an incredibly risky asset. When the bubble burst, the targeted groups never fully recovered—the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, in fact.
If the logic that underwrites Lee’s ad and Booker’s new line doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, it’s not clear why the collaboration between Dorsey and Jay-Z should either—even if their project is just focused on Bitcoin, the original cryptocurrency. Sure, Bitcoin is less volatile than the host of digital tokens that have followed it in that it hasn't completely collapsed to 0, but it has still seen massive crashes repeatedly in the last half year and over the past decade.
For small traders who are investing their savings, these price movements can and often do wipe them out. For poor people excluded from the traditional financial system, throwing them to a new one full of bubbles, fraud, exploitation, and volatility won’t teach them much—it’ll just be old wine in new skins.