Supporting African Americans Rests, In Part, With Technology Connectivity

I was honored to personally attend and witness the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., several weeks ago. After more than one hundred years of deliberation and four years of construction this event represented the dream of so many finally coming to fruition. I marveled, as many did tearfully, as the country's first African American President officially opened the museum on a site surrounded by historical buildings once built by slaves to whom it now pays tribute. This new institution is more than just another museum highlighting key moments throughout United States history. It's the story of a people's journey from tragedies to triumphs; a symbol of how far our nation has come--and how far we still have to go--when it comes to leveling the playing field for African Americans.

Even in the 21st century, a number of issues stand between this community and its ability to achieve maximum success. African Americans face almost double the rate of unemployment. They also face troubling incarceration disparities, including the fact that one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. These barriers are troubling to say the least. But another barrier, less in the public eye but just as prevalent, is also threatening African Americans and keeping them from accessing the tools, resources and support needed to achieve success.

This barrier is known as "the digital divide."

The digital divide is the disproportionate lack of broadband access amongst underserved - such as poor and minority - communities. Just as visitors to the museum can witness, historical inequalities that had profound social, educational and economic impacts on African Americans, we see similar barriers due to the digital divide today. In the past the choice for too many was between jail or jobs, protesting for equal rights or maintaining one's employment to keep a roof overhead. Today, as Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) President Kim Keenan has said, for many people in these communities the choice is now "bread or broadband." As a result, African Americans and other minorities are living, even in today's era of incredible technology innovation, without the most basic home and wireless broadband offerings, including tools and applications that can assist with healthcare, education, finances, transportation and safety.

Momentum is building to address this issue and ensure African Americans do not get left behind in the great technology innovation of today. Specifically, companies in recent years have deployed what's called "zero-rated content," also known as "free data." This offering allows consumers to use quantities of data without it counting towards their monthly data plans. The idea was created, in part, to address explosive increases in monthly data consumption that have left lower income consumers reeling with higher monthly bills.

A commitment to closing the digital divide is even gaining momentum at the federal level. This Thursday, President Obama will travel to Pittsburgh and host the "White House Frontiers Conference." The day-long event will explore advancements in science and technology on multiple frontiers ranging from personal to international, but perhaps most noteworthy for this discussion will be the Administration's proposed objectives on utilizing technology advancements to create more connectivity in local communities, including minority and rural, across the U.S.

The technological innovation already taking place and fostering more connectivity, security and support in areas with high percentages of African Americans is incredible. In multiple metropolitan areas including New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, city officials have installed small noise sensors and implemented better data integration with law enforcement to enhance public safety for community residents. In certain parts of Dallas, a city whose population is 25 percent African American, officials have enabled free public Wi-Fi and interactive kiosks that show touchscreen maps and public transit schedules. And with efforts continuing to establish the world's first 5G wireless network, these technology advancements across the U.S. only stand to grow more promising.

The digital divide is not something immediately visible to all Americans. It's not jumping out at us through current news stories or appearing in the heated rhetoric of the current presidential debate. Then again, neither did the economic inequalities of the not so distant past; that is until leaders in the Civil Rights movement called the country's attention to many pressing concerns including economic empowerment and opportunity. The future success of African Americans and minority communities across the U.S depends, in part, on our nation once again recognizing the need to ensure all of our communities are empowered and positioned to connect to the larger economy in general and specifically to our burgeoning technology capabilities. We're on the right track, but more can--and must--be done.