TMCnet Feature
March 02, 2021

Dr. Chris Brummer and Panel Interrogate Coinbase's "Kaepernick Moment"

Dr. Chris Brummer pulled no punches on the Martin Luther King Day Special episode of his Fintech Beat podcast, “Coinbase and race,” from his succinct introduction invoking the capitol rioters from the week prior and calling attention to their reliance on cryptocurrency, to his discussion of Coinbase’s censorship of employee activism with an all-star panel of professors and anti-racist activists, taken from his Fintech Week conference in October of 2020. True to the spirit of the holiday and the man behind it, the episode kept a pinpoint focus on the intersection of financial technology and the ongoing struggle for racial justice, as characterized by the protests last summer.

            None of this is new territory for Dr. Brummer, a professor and faculty director of Georgetown’s Institute of International Economic Law, whose latest paper, “What Do the Data Reveal About (the absence of Black) Financial Regulators?” was published by Brookings in September of last year. On his podcast, Fintech Beat, Dr. Chris Brummer interviews experts and insiders in financial technology to explore the “intersection of policy, finance, and tech” for the benefit of potential investors and enthusiasts alike. In every aspect of his work, Fintech Beat included, he carries a passion for the future of finance, a future in which censoring black voices is becoming increasingly problematic not just on principle, but as a means of alienating entire markets.

            The panel kicked off with Paul Butler, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men, MSNBC contributor, and Georgetown Law Professor, giving historical context to the summer’s protests and by extension the Coinbase discussion. “In this conference a question is, ‘How do you use technology?’ How do you use disruption to advance racial justice in the way that smartphones helped us out?” Butler argued that ubiquitous access to smartphone cameras, beginning in 2012, sowed the seeds of the movement for black lives and the success of last summer’s protest in which an unprecedented “six percent […] up to ten percent of Americans protested.” Butler’s optimism about the way technology can assist the fight for racial justice is a direct call to action to fintech experts in the panel and audience alike.

            Cleve Mesidor, founder of the National Policy Network of Women of Color in Blockchain, then moved to the heart of the discussion: Coinbase’s controversial decision to censor employees who showed their support for the nationwide protests against police brutality, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor: “It boils down to a lack of transparency, an attack on free speech, a crackdown on inclusion, and worker rights infringement.” Coinbase eliminated 5% of its staff, those who chose to protest at the risk of severance, in a situation Dr. Brummer called, “Weirdly analogous to the Colin Kaepernick moment,” in which the employer doesn’t want protest in or near the workplace that lead to a major outcry. The key difference being that as Brummer knows full-well, compared to football there are fewer black people in Fintech.

Robert Greenfield, the CEO of Emerging Impact, a technical partner focused on utilizing Blockchain technology for humanitarian aid, weighed in on the Coinbase situation as an example of the irony of decentralized finance. The goal of a blockchain company is to make finances fairer and more transparent but, as he says, “Those people who are the least financially included are people of color.” Coinbase has made itself inaccessible materially through its transaction fees and now politically through its censorship. “Making sure inclusive voices are heard would actually help the company improve its products,” Greenfield offers, because the alternative is alienation their customer base. Coinbase hasn’t gone public yet, but when they do they’ll need to expose their risk to investors, which could prove incredibly problematic given their recent history.

Kathryn Judge, the Harvey J. Goldschmid Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, homed in on Coinbase’s reputational risk, especially having lost employees over the summer. “This raises real questions about their business operations […] Is this really the most viable vision for the company?” In a work culture that encourages silence over expressing personal politics, Judge worried about how a failing compliance system might lead to more employee drop off in the future. “You need to have an environment where people see problems […] and feel comfortable raising issues.” Cleve added that Coinbase, as a federal contractor, has been displaying a jarring lack of transparency that might even necessitate a congressional inquiry.

Chris Brummer finished out the panel collecting final thoughts from the participants and pivoting back to Paul Butler, who pointed out the historical precedent for corporations taking a positive political stance whether it was for marriage equality, affirmative action or, in this case, the movement for black lives. It’s financially sound for corporations to improve their reputation by coming out in support for causes a majority believe in, Professor Butler’s concern being, press releases aside, can citizens pressure corporations into, “walking the walk” and putting capitol behind their expressions of altruism.

The discussion of Coinbase’s decision to censor its employees, specifically employees of color, with the threat of termination for expressing sympathies with the Black Lives Matter movement dovetailed perfectly with discussions of their place in the market on the verge of going public, and, on a broader level, the future of Fintech. As Greenfield said, so much of the enterprise of blockchain technology is becoming an equalizer. Each of these companies are hedging their bets on a future in which more and more people are interested in the market and thinking about their finances in ways that, if they are an ethnic minority, they are often disincentivized to. Coinbase, especially when they go public, are beholden to those perspectives, who are not only their current employees and prospective investors, but the future of finance. “As the great postmodern philosopher once said,” Dr. Brummer concludes, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

To learn more about Dr. Chris Brummer’s research, click here. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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