The Techno-Racial Divide

{published in April 2004 issue of Western New York Catholic monthly periodical}

Brenda:

It was a pleasure reading your article in the Feb’04 WNY Catholic, “Work to equalize the technological racial divide,” as it raises an issue I as a professional in the IT industry have always been concerned with. Globally, it is disappointing the scale of technological (and economic) disparity, where only half the people in the world have even used a telephone, but the problem in our own backyard is something we can no longer ignore and we can all do something about.

But before offering some helpful suggestions to addressing the problem, another problem was brought out unintentionally by what you wrote. You state that the “haves” are responsible for the development of products inaccessible to the “have-nots” which paints an inaccurate picture of intentional class war or the technological equivalent of the “Jim Crow” laws. This paints the Internet as a white-controlled environment, which is not only simply not true, but creates discouragement toward a medium that has the nearly infinite potential to level all playing fields.

The fact is that like every other ethnicity in America and around the world, African-Americans have made contributions to all aspects of “high technology” from positions such as software or hardware engineer, marketer, manufacturer-laborer, all the way up to CEO of various technology companies. Technology is not the exclusive realm of any demographic, at least in America. Some of the poorest neighborhoods in Buffalo may even have more cell phones and other electronic gadgets per person that my own neighborhood.

So isn’t it misleading to say simply that the rich are making things the poor can’t afford? If that was the problem, why are there no complaints about more and more expensive vehicles in an America where personal transportation can mean the difference between gainful and ungainful unemployment? Taking it one step further, don’t lower and middle class families deserve side airbags, like those who can afford such vehicles? The problem with these arguments are that is can become finger-pointing or an excuse to not address the real problem. Ironically, the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, owner of the Microsoft empire, spends countless billions of dollars on providing computers and Internet access to the country’s poorest neighborhoods, in particular in the Northwest.

None of us have the “right” to a car with OnStar GPS service and airbags in every direction, or to a cutting-edge computer at our fingertips, but your article points to the truth — in an age where access to technology can be a major contributing factor (though I don’t say a determining one) in a child’s or older individual’s success, there is a economic and racial divide that must be addressed.

But there are solutions. Existing public access at libraries and free computer training at various agencies is a good start. At least in theory, every one of us has access.

But we must establish a measurable watermark as to the minimum degree and amount of access and EDUCATION relating to computers and the Internet. Some neighborhood schools will have the newest toys and it would be ridiculous to knock them for it as unfair if they can afford it, but there should be a minimum requirement for all schools, and programs or incentives to ensure they all reach this watermark. This approach should be applied to the whole neighborhood — the schools, libraries, even homes. The Church is a pervasive social force in most places, and could establish initiative to study the problem in detail and develop programs accordingly, even if it means public education about and promoting existing programs in the community.

And there are many things we can all do to help. What about sponsoring a needy child on your street, letting them use the computer in your home for Internet homework resources? What about suburban parishes with schools pairing up with an urban school to provide occasional classes or even regular access to (more up to date) computer labs? As a business owner, I would offer access to my office for anyone in the neighborhood who needed access for job searching online. How could I refuse? Many businesses have an extra desk or PC around at times, and could use them to increase access in their respective communities.

So your article touches on a real issue that deserves serious attention. Let’s take that step forward and start the dialogue between the “haves” and “have-nots”, and put our faith into practice by creating and using any means necessary to share such resources.

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