Our nation is now fixated, properly, by the wall-to-wall, split-screen coverage of the two defining stories of the year: the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the racial justice revolution spurred by the police killing of George Floyd.
For decades, the persistent, urgent pleas to address racial injustice have gone unheard until, like with the French and American revolutions, the pot boiled over and people took to the streets.
On the other screen, it’s become an international embarrassment that the United States, with 4 percent of the world population, accounts for 25 percent of the COVID cases (which also, incidentally, targets Black and Brown communities with a vengeance.)
It didn’t have to be this way.
Whether we see fundamental reform in racial justice or public health remains to be seen. But one thing both crises make clear is the need for a digital civil rights revolution. In fact, if we step back, it may be the internet that’s the most powerful medium shaping these battles and their eventual outcomes.
Ubiquitous camera-equipped smartphones and social media were the fuel for the newly energized multiracial movement for racial justice. The broadband internet is often the primary source of information in our communities about COVID — its symptoms, how to avoid infection and what to do if infected.
Digital contact tracing may yet prove a game-changing tool in the fight against the virus.
On other hand, facial recognition technology can quickly become the new form of racial profiling. Big Tech’s “big data” revolution has enabled White supremacy movements and birthed new forms of digital redlining hiring, mortgage approvals and criminal justice.
Of 50,000 employees at Google, fewer than 2 percent are African American. “Why are Black and Latino people still kept out of the tech industry,” screams a recent Los Angeles Times headline.
The biggest issue with the internet is making sure everyone is online and enfranchised. The second biggest is how we use the technology. Let’s start with some simple facts.
Ninety-five percent of American homes have access to high-speed networks, but only 66 percent of Black families subscribe to home broadband service, and even fewer — only 58 percent — have a home computer.
Even as broadband providers have invested heavily in steep discounts for low-income families — with some offering these services entirely free during the COVID crisis — broadband adoption still badly lags.
Study after study shows that low broadband adoption is driven by a sense among non-subscribers that the internet just isn’t relevant or valuable to them.
A tech ecosystem built largely by White engineers and for White audiences — one that tolerates and actively profits from the incitement of hate and bigotry — has failed to convince far too many Black and Brown Americans of their place and value in that ecosystem.
Even now, while the CARES Act has admirably set aside billions to help school districts provide connectivity and hardware to low-income students, we’ve seen no parallel investment in the mentoring and digital literacy training urgently needed to help teachers, parents and students fully join the digital community.
We shouldn’t be surprised that more than half of students in some districts simply aren’t logging on.
If we’re serious about ending these inequities, we should recall James Baldwin’s words: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And pretending that the digital divide is merely a connectivity or infrastructure challenge fails to face the real roots of this failure.
Closing the digital divide will require nothing short of a revolution — a massive cultural change in institutions, from our public institutions in Washington to the gleaming corporate campuses of Silicon Valley.
And this change must be led by Black entrepreneurs, activists and policy leaders — from venture firms like Lightship Capital, Black Girl Ventures or HBCU.vc to activist groups like Data 4 Black Lives, Civic Hacker and the Algorithmic Justice League — which have been all been ignored by the Silicon Valley power structure to date.
Changing institutions requires a sustained commitment, not just a series of COVID-specific legislative Band-Aids or well-intentioned but largely empty corporate blog posts conceding that Black Lives do, in fact, Matter.
We must turn protest into policy — for example, by pressing to enact the Digital Equity Act of 2019 and Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s Computer Science for All Act. We need a concerted, sustained effort to build Black Tech Ecosystems — not just in Silicon Valley but in communities across the country.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.”
In short, we need an unprecedented movement to bring all people of color fully into the digital world, just as our parents and grandparents fought to force open the doors to the political world by marching and bleeding to secure their voting rights.
This is the 21st-century version of that battle.