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The Cutting Edge | Digital Nation

Reaching Out to Bring Low-Income Blacks Across the 'Digital Divide'

April 12, 1999|GARY CHAPMAN

The most important factor in American politics and society, at the end of this century, is still race--especially the relationship between white and black Americans.

This centuries-old tension has nearly always had a technological dimension, as black Americans have commonly found their economic prospects altered, usually for the worse, by technological developments. Slaves were freed just as new agricultural technologies devalued human labor. African Americans who migrated to cities for factory employment weren't there very long before automation decimated those jobs.

Now African Americans are confronting the digital revolution, and the picture they again see is a decidedly mixed blessing.

There are, of course, many black American leaders helping shape the future of high tech. They include William Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (and a Los Angeles native), and Larry Irving, assistant secretary of commerce and director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

There is a new group of black entrepreneurs making money online, such as E. David Ellington, president and CEO of NetNoir Inc., an online service for African Americans on the Web (http://www.netnoir.com) and on America Online, and Robert L. Johnson, the wealthy founder and head of Black Entertainment Television, who has launched MS-BET on the Internet (http://www.betnetworks.com).

Middle-class blacks in the U.S. are the fastest-growing segment of first-time buyers of home computers, especially now that there are PCs selling for $600, studies have found. A study reported a year ago by Vanderbilt University professors Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak estimated that there were then about 5 million blacks in the U.S. using the Internet, and the figure has undoubtedly grown since then. More black people have reported wanting to get on the Internet than have white people.

However, there are also stubborn disparities in technological access and participation in the high-tech economy. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson pointed out last month, high-tech companies are overwhelmingly, even embarrassingly, white. Jackson's Rainbow Coalition has purchased stock in 51 Silicon Valley companies in order to press shareholder resolutions for greater diversity on corporate boards. Out of 384 board directors of those companies, only five, or 1.3%, are African American.

For low-income African Americans, the boom in the "new economy" threatens to pass them by. Poor schools with predominantly minority students have twice as many students per computer, on average, as middle-class white schools. White families are roughly twice as likely to own a home computer as black families, according to Hoffman and Novak.

This well-known problem has been characterized as the "digital divide," the subject of a recent workshop at the annual convention of the National Forum of Black Public Administrators in Austin, Texas. Herman Lessard, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Urban League and a workshop speaker, called equalizing access to technology and training "the new frontier of civil rights."

One tool for providing training and access to low-income African Americans is the community technology center model, or CTC, a physical place that provides computer access for people who can't afford one. Black leaders throughout the U.S. are beginning to regard CTCs as an essential part of the African American community, especially in inner cities and poverty zones. And there are several CTCs in Los Angeles that are leading the way.

Blue Line Televillage, a project of Compton and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, is one model that has an international reputation. It is a center with computers, Internet connections, videoconferencing facilities and training classes for its roughly 2,000 members, mostly African American, who pay $10 a year for adults and $5 annually for students and seniors.

Blue Line Televillage is situated next to a public transit hub in Compton as an experiment in creating a "telework" center, according to Walter Siembab of Siembab Associates, a Los Angeles consulting firm that helped get the project started. Siembab advocates the proliferation of what he calls "personal network access facilities" no more than half a mile away from anyone's home, primarily as a way to reduce traffic and air pollution, promote telecommuting and reconfigure urban areas into more convivial spaces.

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