African Americans and the Digital Divide

As protestors in New York continue to "Occupy Wall Street" and the unemployment rate for African Americans remains the highest since 1984, it's obvious people are getting tired of waiting for change and instead are trying to take back control the only way they know how.

Nowadays, one of the first things people hear when they start applying for jobs is: "Do you blog?" The statement while seemingly a no-brainer is rife with multiple meanings. It implies an obvious knowledge of blogging platforms, a proficiency of HTML, CSS and potentially FBML, but it also implies a savvy for all of the social networking sites -- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare, etc. For a large number of people this list is anything but intimidating. For those stuck in the digital divide it can only pose one more question -- where to begin?

The term "digital divide" was first coined in the 90s, referring to the gap between those who have access to information and communications technologies and those who do not. Since then multiple measures have been taken to reduce this gap and address the issues associated with the growing discrepancy between certain socioeconomic and racial groups. But, when you look at the numbers, has enough really been done to tackle both the disparities and their effect on the unemployment rate?

The first place people looked to close the gap were schools. Rightfully assuming that if we could introduce newer computers, iPads and more relevant digital coursework into classrooms, then we could begin to even the playing field between those students who lack access to technology at home and those that have everything at their fingertips. While this is helping it still may not be enough.

The reality is this: to fully experience and gain a working knowledge of social media and the programs associated with blogging, one needs to spend time engaging with the media. While introducing the technology into the classrooms is essential, students who lack access to it at home continue to be at a disadvantage. Aaron Smith, a Pew Senior Research Specialist was quoted as saying, "black/latino students are about as likely as white students to go online -- but white students are much more likely to do so from home, while minority students are much more likely to rely on access at their school or in a library."

And what if you are not a student? If you are an older member of the African-American unemployed population who had to leave school for an unforeseeable reason such as financial burdens or the need to care for a relative, you're now told that certain jobs require certain digital skill sets. How you acquire those skill sets without going further into debt is another issue.

We may be struggling to figure out where the jobs are in today's economy, but what we do know is that a lot of them are in digital arenas. Just last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that social media jobs are on the rise. As such, where the focus needs to begin to fall is on offering the unemployed the opportunity to take advantage of these digital opportunities. This could come in the form of subsidizing digital bootcamps for example, where over a short period of time participants can learn the essentials of HTML, CSS and more. Or, offering more free training courses led by local industry professionals at community centers in major cities.

As digital literacy efforts continue, it may be less about providing access to technology and more about teaching the relevant ways in which potential employees can use the technology to enter the workforce.