An Emancipation Proclamation for the Digital Age
We just celebrated "Juneteenth" (the start of the end of slavery in the U.S.) amid tumultuous and sometimes confusing politics and what appears to be an increase in racist mobilization. For internet activists the situation begs the question: what, at this moment in our history, is the relationship between technology and black people?
It's a critical issue for us all.
Regular readers of this site have read it many times: with expanding globalization and the information economy, the internet has become a major, if not the major, communications technology in today's world. In the United States, it's the most popular tool for direct and group communications, study, research, diversion, journalism, intellectual collaboration and news consumption.
Most people reading this would agree that black people must be a part of that. But that truth is not a function only of a commitment to equality or justice. It's a necessity if we are to preserve the Internet's freedom and functionality and build a truly just and democratic society.
That kind of society requires that Black people "sit at the table" of equality in this country and, to do that, they must enjoy a full, robust relationship with the internet that is equal to all other groups of people.
That, today, is simply not the case.
While the "digital divide" remains something of an issue, it is no longer the main one. Black people in the United States enjoy open and fairly robust use of internet technologies, particularly with the rise of the cell phone and cable television as internet devices. Both of those technologies are ubiquitous in Black communities of this country.
However, computer and internet access and use by African Americans remains far below that of Whites. The Pew Research Center study of device ownership found that half of all households with annual incomes under $30,000 do not have or use a computer at home, compared with 10% of households with incomes over $50,000. The U.S. median Black household income in 2015 was $35,481, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As Lee Rainie, The Pew Research Center's Director of Internet, Science, and Technology Research (and co-author of that study) explains, the relationship of Black people to the internet is highly nuanced and scaled. So while a Black college student (a population that has grown enormously over the last 20 years) might use the internet freely and openly for research and basic communications, a person who dropped out of high school might use it primarily for quick "texting" and tweeting, if at all. This makes sense, since the internet is a written communications tool for the most part.
In addition, as the Pew study points out, the difference in usage among various age levels is particularly pronounced within the Black community, with older people being significantly less likely to use the internet.