Technology and the Civil Rights Movement

Rainbow PUSH Coalition explores the digital divide


WASHINGTON – If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive and dreaming today, his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech might be broadened to include technology equality along with racial parity, according to some civil rights activists.

Protestors shut down I-195 and streets in Miami on Dec. 5 in response to the Eric Garner chokehold decision in New York. Much of the information about protests around the country have been spread via the Internet.(AL DIAZ/MIAMI HERALD/TNS)
Protestors shut down I-195 and streets in Miami on Dec. 5 in response to the Eric Garner chokehold decision in New York. Much of the information about protests around the country have been spread via the Internet.

“Dr. King could not have predicted what was next. But we now see what was next and that is technology. Just as we had been left out of the economic avenues in Dr. King’s day, we’ve been left out of the economic avenues today, except now that’s technology,” says Rev. Grainger Browning, pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Md.

Browning recently spoke on a panel at a symposium titled “The Future of Civil Rights: Moving Towards First Class Economic, Political and Digital Citizenship.”

Push for diversity
The symposium was sponsored by the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which has spent the past year urging Silicon Valley giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo to disclose workforce diversity data and make a commitment to increasing diversity at all levels.

Among those corporations, Rainbow PUSH Coalition found that Black people accounted for 3 percent or less of their tech and non-tech workforces.

Technology is playing a central role in what may be a resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement in the protests over grand jury decisions not to indict White police officers in the death of unarmed African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, N.Y.

STEM training
According to research from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, less than 4 percent of those employed in science and engineering fields are Black, compared to White Americans who account for 71 percent.

141211_dt_technology01bAs advances in technology give rise to new fields and accelerate existing ones, the lack of representation within STEM professions is resulting in a shortage of qualified Americans to fill these new roles.

People of color are already the majority among the youngest generation of Americans — and without adequate STEM education, the generation may not be prepared.  This lack of training already disqualifies many Americans from one of the most entrepreneurial, lucrative, and fast-growing sectors.

“The challenge is that we are primarily consumers and not creators,” said Navarrow Wright, president and CEO of the Close the Divide Project, which seeks to increased STEM opportunity awareness among women and people of color.

Wright also served as a panelist during the Rainbow PUSH symposium. “There’s no light bulb that this is a business opportunity. When you consume, you don’t recognize you have power.”

Lots of smartphone use
Additionally, business and society are now globalized thanks to the Internet, but people of color are less likely than their White counterparts to have access to high-speed Internet in their homes. The Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Black adults have broadband at home, compared to 74 percent of White adults.

Further, Blacks and Latinos are more likely to access the Internet only through smartphones – 74 percent of Black people who own a smartphone use it as their primary access to the Internet as opposed to a computer or laptop at home. Poor Internet access can create a range of barriers, from difficulty with online forms and job applications, to lowered academic performance, to increased costs for financial and administrative transactions via mail or in-person visits.

Overrepresented on Twitter
Paradoxically, the Internet has also given voice to the least heard members of society.

“It’s true that there is a digital divide. However…cell phone is our main access to the Internet,” says entrepreneur and scholar Avis Jones-DeWeever, who also served as a panelist.

“We tend to be overrepresented on a lot of these [mobile] platforms, on Twitter especially, but others as well. I think it’s amplifying those activists who were already there, already in the trenches, already doing this work…but it’s also I think motivated others to become involved and become changes agents themselves in a way they hadn’t really thought of.”

Social media alerts
Social media sites such as Twitter, Vine and Facebook have enabled marginalized groups to bypass gatekeepers and communicate, organize and draw attention to their issues. For most of the demonstrations around the nation in response to police killings — the roadway shutdowns, die-ins and marches — the word was spread via the Internet.

Additionally, online petitions and fundraisers lend financial support and political weight to the cause.

Youth-led movement
As an uprising continues to boil over police brutality, racial discrimination and condoned police shootings, technology may become the bridge between the Civil Rights Movement and today’s youth-led agitation.

“From Civil Rights elders there’s a lot to be learned as relates to strategizing, as well as coming up with a specific plan for policy action and seeing it through. But I also think young people bring an energy and a new methodology or reaching masses in a very short time,” said Jones-DeWeever.

“The power and potential of [technology] is extraordinary, and we need to continue to use it as a weapon in our arsenal. But we also need to remember the other side of the coin regarding strategy. It needs to be a both-and approach.”



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