A disease, a death, and the digital divide demand a new civil rights movement
“A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” The words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. prophesy a change that is coming. The new civil rights movement will be driven by technology, and Black and Brown people must lead it. In order for us to do this, we must first close a massive divide.
Since the start of the pandemic, the entire world has witnessed a rapidly declining value of the American dream for Black people. Its depreciation is seen in the 30,000 plus Black people who have died of COVID-19 because of racial health disparities and the implicit bias of a healthcare system that sees Black bodies as less worthy of being saved.
Make no mistake: The disproportionate struggle of Black and Brown people under COVID-19 is a tech issue. Those with access to consistent, quality technology have fared far better during the COVID-19 outbreak. The disease is spread by human to human contact, but its spread is exacerbated by a person’s potential inability to recognize the symptoms and know how they can spread it to others. Where is most of this information located? The internet. Yet nearly 42 million Americans are not online, and among the strongest indicators of lack of internet access are race, education, and income.
Lack of access to modern learning processes is clearly a tech issue. We have witnessed American school districts scramble to launch citywide remote learning plans only to realize that the computers they gave to students sit in the corners of homes because parents are unaware of how to connect the modem to the cable wall wire, or that some caregivers have pawned the laptops because they needed to feed their families. Six percent of school-age children don’t have any type of internet access at home.
And, with Black Americans already suffering disproportionately from those health, education, and employment disparities, we witnessed the ruthless murder — on video — of George Floyd by policemen in St. Paul, sparking national and global protest movements. In the last three months, James Baldwin’s words, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” have rung true. We have had multiple ugly truths about racial disparities thrown in our faces in quick succession. We have no choice but to face them. But in order to create change, we must first examine how these disparities are manifested in everyday American life.
When we talk about the “digital divide,” we aren’t just talking about the differences between people who have access to technology and those who don’t. We are talking about distinct and persistent disadvantages that are directly linked to lack of tech access and inclusion. This is a multi-dimensional issue based on several elements, including availability, accessibility, affordability, and awareness of tech resources – as well as the agency, ability, and assistance, as needed, to use it beneficially. Digital exclusion affects the health, education, job opportunities, and social well-being of America’s most disenfranchised populations.
Everything seems to happen offline, but everything has a tech outcome. When George Floyd’s life was taken from him, the vicious crime and resulting revolution were digitally documented and globally spread through our laptops, tablets, and phones. But violence against Black bodies is not new. It is a centuries-old story. The new story – how we enact lasting change – is just being written. Ultimately, those with the most access to this new tech world we have built will control the rest of the narrative.
More Black people are dying of COVID-19 because the information on how to stop it is being shared online. We cannot apply for or certify unemployment because now it’s all done online. Our children cannot learn because now it’s all done online. Black-owned businesses have less access to the tools of promotion and expansion – which are online. And our lower online presence means that we aren’t being seen and heard. The past few weeks, “Amplify voices of color” has meant “post things that Black and Brown people are saying online because white people control these tools and have the power to help us be heard.” We were forced to take to the streets for analog protest because of digital exclusion.
The past 400 years have been bad, but we are dangerously unprepared for what’s coming for us next, where physical violence against our bodies at the hands of militarized police departments will be compounded by violation through excessive internet of things (IoT) hyper-surveillance. In Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Ruha Benjamin talks about how emerging technologies can actually reinforce white supremacy, either by making us invisible under the pretense of racial neutrality or, the opposite, making us hypervisible to systems of racial surveillance. As smart cities continue to use data and technology, the same tools that city and county governments use for COVID-19 contact tracing and data sharing can be used to target and disproportionately over-track Black and Brown people. The same tools that disseminate useful information can be used to fuel movements against us. I fear for our people because we don’t understand the technology that can potentially be used to our disadvantage. I believe a social movement is the solution to our current racial tech disparities.
One thing is clear, particularly given the COVID-related announcements of free WiFi by Comcast and other internet service providers: We as a nation have the financial and technical means to give all Americans broadband. But broadband alone will not fix the vast racial tech disparities that plague our nation.
Under COVID, school districts and mayors have hastily amassed devices with CARES Act monies, hoping this will solve the access issue for students. Often, they are doing this without a plan for sustainability. What happens when the CARES dollars are depleted? What happens when the pandemic has a vaccine? Will we stop caring about Black and Brown children’s access to this new tech world? Will they have to continue to languish at the edge of our great digital realities and innovations and wait until the next crisis before they are seen?
Quotidian social media activity where the latest inhumane issue is plastered across our Facebook profiles is not enough to create lasting change. We need a new civil rights tech movement reminiscent of the 1900s U.S. Abolition movement that produced the NAACP, and the 1960s Civil Rights movement that produced the Black Panther Party and the Black Feminist Lesbian Combahee River Collective. These social movements were powerful because they called out white supremacy and patriarchy. They trained everyday Black people, across generations, to read, protest, and lead. They saturated American culture with stories, visuals, and messages of freedom. These movements set a powerful precedent for how to deal with large intersecting oppressions against Black people in the U.S. When people mobilize and train others to create change, diversity and empowerment spring forth.
And because most of life happens online right now, this is the moment where we have the biggest opportunity to call for change – and to create it. This change requires more than messages across social media. Yes, most of life is now online – but the change must start in the community. With so many Black and Brown people lacking digital access, we cannot expect this change to come in the form of a revolution to be spread across the internet. The original American civil rights movement began in barber shops, beauty salons, and churches. Likewise, the new tech civil rights movement must start with community leaders helping to spread the message that decisions affecting us are being made without us.
Change won’t happen in a silo, and singular, intermittent interventions will not solve the many tech disparities that Black people face in this country especially under COVID-19 and racial violence, only a movement can do that. We face some undeniable statistics regarding the digital divide:
38% of Black people nationally report not having access to broadband, and Black people are 3 times more likely to choose pre-paid plans and change mobile phones and providers, with price being the major concern. Though people point to Black people’s usage of mobile phones as the solution, there are clear issues of affordability and reliability.
CollegeBoard’s AP Exam data for 2018 showed a 44% increase in Black students taking at least one AP Computer Science exam. Most of us would take this at face value and congratulate ourselves for a job well done. However, this percentage amounts to only 7,301 Black students out of a total of 135,992. African-Americans received just 7.6% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees and 4.5% of doctorates in STEM.
The truth is that most of our diversity and inclusion work has focused on the ultimate bad actor, the tech company, especially during COVID with all tech companies pinning open letters of support for Black Lives Matter. The inquisition goes: How well are tech companies treating Black employees, how well are tech companies tracking Black hires, and how well are tech companies investing in Black tech startups?
Wired reported that the efforts to diversify tech over the last six years have failed. They have failed because the focus has been on correcting one institutional racial disparity at a time. Black people and other people of color encounter compounding obstacles that restrict them, unlike their white counterparts, from getting access to tech opportunities and resources, tech jobs (and jobs in general), and launching tech businesses (and businesses in general).
Even if we can get past these barriers, and even if we can obtain the most desirable type of job today – a tech job – we are still most likely to land in support-like roles (e.g. software developers), which are highly threatened by automation, instead of leadership roles in technology work. So, even when we focus on the narrower scope of ensuring Black people are included in the tech industry, we have issues.
The conversation is heading in the wrong direction. Rarely is there an intentional focus on how to support Black people themselves who are creating new funding models for Black tech startups like Lightship Capital, Black Girl Ventures or HBCU.vc. There is no intentional focus on how to support Black people themselves who are building national and international organizations to support Black STEM and Computer Science pipelines like ISTE Digital Equity PLN, blackComputeHer or Black in AI.
There has been little investment in supporting Black organizations like Data 4 Black Lives, Civic Hacker, and Algorithmic Justice League, which are building transformative social justice tech movements for Black people in this country. Regrettably, we have often cast Black people as subjects of intervention rather than leaders of innovation. Our efforts have largely prepared Black people to be helped by the powers that be, rather than to take the power to lead.
Only movements can prepare large groups of people for change. The organizations I’ve mentioned here are all part of a budding National Black Tech Ecosystem that will lead us in this new civil rights tech movement. The National Black Tech Ecosystem Builder Association defines a black tech ecosystem as an ecology of institutions within the Black community that are optimized and aligned to expedite the growth of Black innovations and that are populated by Black tech founders, researchers, scientists, innovators, creatives, faith leaders, public interest technologist, and community tech activists.
Change cannot happen in a silo. To build lasting change, we have to grow a true ecosystem – a complex network of interconnected elements functioning as a system – to empower the movement.
Disrupt the narrative that giving everyone a laptop will solve the issue. Reject the hypothesis that Black people’s use of cell phones = digital inclusion.
Demand better data: Urge every mayor and citywide chamber in the U.S. to conduct a Black Tech Ecosystem Assessment. A city needs to understand how deep the digital divide is in order to create credible policy and intervention.
Put funding and action behind beliefs: Develop a National Black Tech Ecosystem Builder Fellowship that will fund Black tech ecosystem builders to go into cities and help to align Black tech founders, innovators, scientists, creatives, faith leaders, public interest technologists, and community tech leaders in the work toward true digital equity. A program that, like AmeriCorps, is a “voluntary civil society program, supported by the US federal government, foundations, corporations, and other donors that engages adults in public service work” using collective activity to make an impact in digital inclusion.
Small-scale, episodic solutions are no longer the answer. We cannot correct multiple, intersecting disparities without multiple, intersecting solutions. This “one size fits all” approach will not accomplish the work of building an equitable and just digital reality for all.
Black and Brown people will never be heard until we have power over the tools that control the narrative. We must gain full access to and participation in digital worlds in order to speak for ourselves. We will build a movement.
Dr. Fallon Wilson is Founder of UmanityEDU, which builds Black tech innovation ecologies, including The National Black Tech Ecosystem Association, #BlackChurch Futures, and the #BlackTechFutures Research Institute. She was previously CEO and cofounder of Black in Tech Nashville and Research Director of Black Tech Mecca.