FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski says closing the digital gap is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time. While many of us are busy online with the Internet throughout the day, a large percentage of African Americans and Latinos are being left behind without accessibility and affordability to broadband. It is estimated that only 56% of African Americans have broadband in their households and only 47% of Hispanics. This compares to 65% for white Americans households. In all, a third of all Americans have not adopted broadband, according to FCC Chairman Genachowski. Combined with low income families without broadband, it translates to an estimated 100 million who are being left behind. Today many jobs are posted only online while many government services are online. Without access to online, many are required to still stand in line. In contrast, blacks are using cell phones at a much higher rate than whites, with 81% of African Americans owning a cell phone. But, not many are completing job applications on a cell phone, using educational tools or conducting other necessary business. The access to digital is just one of many issues being tackled by Minority Media and Telecom Council’s (MMTC”) Broadband and Social Justice Summit in Washington, DC this week.
Historically, many people of color were shut out of broadcasting for decades, while segregationists continued to provide only the information they wanted blacks to receive. In the 21st century, digital equality is a social justice issue. We must ensure digital equality for all persons. In addressing the keynote dinner speech, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. told the crowd that “closing the digital divide is as important as closing the education divide, closing the healthcare divide and closing the economic divide. Indeed, broadband is a tool that can be used to narrow these divisions and close the wealth gap.” As Rev. Jackson reminds us, we cannot close the broadband gap without closing the poverty wealth gap. Rep. Bobby Rush (D.IL) , affectionately known as the Godfather of the broadband movement , echoed the point that the digital divide is a civil rights issue. Congressman Rush said small businesses are drivers of economic growth. Digital access is a necessary component in that growth. Closing the gap will require that the government, private sector, public interest groups and community groups work together. Yet, in the words of Kelley Dunne, CEO of One Economy, bringing all Americans on line is not optional. It’s a moral and economic imperative.
Breaking down the barriers will differ depending on the location. There is no one size fits all solution. There are pilot programs now in parts of North Carolina to assist in closing the digital divide. Some historical black colleges and universities are adopting communities to assist with access to broadband. Knowledge is power and key to success. Without access to broadband, minorities will lack the power to determine their own destiny. Broadband provides jobs, educational tools and touches upon every aspect of our lives. MMTC’s Broadband and Social Justice Summit will continue to work on innovative ways to develop policies to deliver America 100% broadband access, adoption and affordability . Those attendees present at the Summit are commited to continuing to address the issues of affordability and access. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.
Washington DC based Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor, political and legal commentator. She also writes for the Huffington Post. She holds a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a native of Baltimore, MD.