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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 ownershipfound 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.

Still, Black people now have access to internet technology more than ever. But access in the Black community is not about who uses the internet but how they use it.

And that is the problem.

First, the trend is toward greater use of social media. Twitter and Facebook are undoubtedly the most popular internet functionalities among younger Black people. While nobody can question the importance and usefulness of these protocols, they are very limited in their ability to foster effective communication. Facebook’s scrapbook presentation and Twitter’s word limits make articles, papers and other longer written forms difficult to read and virtually impossible to post.

This is intellectually constraining for potential authors (which, in internet culture, is anyone with an idea in his or her head) but it’s stultifying intellectually for those who might read this material. The Black presence in larger intellectual culture of the internet is very sparse as a result.

This is particularly true with the social struggle movements led by Black people such as Black Lives Matter. While this movement was organized primarily on the internet, it used Twitter extensively with network texting as a second, supportive technology. While these are powerful mobilizing tools, they don’t allow for more in-depth analysis and collaborative thinking (one of the criticisms activists make of the Black Lives Matter movement). In this case, technology moved Black people forward in terms of the public spotlight but, due to the protocols used, limited their ability to develop and project a shared political analysis and strategy for addressing the systemic issues that gave rise to the movement.

There are, to be sure, websites that specialize in Black news and social/political analysis and they are well-known and prominent. But they are few and also highly ghettoized —seldom cited by other news organizations or analysis websites, infrequently mentioned by speakers talking about technology, and not visited much by anyone other than Black people.

Second, open and aggressive racism is alive and well on the internet. Even a cursory look at the comments sections of any of the news sites (like CNN or Fox) reveal a shocking racism that is more virulent and brazen than what was prevalent 40 years. The anonymity of the internet, combined with an increase in racist thinking and expression (as white people face more frightening prospects in their lives and are enabled to scapegoat people of color for that) have produced a culture of racist expression so overwhelming that it is difficult to publicly challenge.

It’s daunting to be a person of color in public situations and debates on the internet and Black people take the brunt of that repressive beating. As a result, Black people tend to congregate and participate only on certain types of websites while not doing much more than “surfing” the rest of the Net.

As a result, much of the internet has no Black presence in its information and analysis.

Third, there are very few Black technologists and ever fewer Black people in major positions in any technology organization or network. The problem is fundamental to the culture and character of technology. The functioning of the internet, its management, and (most importantly) its development through software and protocols is all run by white men, with the resulting biases and limited perspective that can be expected to reflect any racially constrained process. Of all the internet-related problems, this is the worst because it extends far into the future, is a root problem that can’t be solved without a major revamping of the technologist population, and it is entrenched in the power of white men over communications and the economics involved in internet technology.

It walks hand in hand with racism and white supremacy.

Finally, the explosive corporate use of the internet, particularly in retail sales, has actually brought more and more Black people (particularly younger Black people) into use of the technology but that use limits Black people’s communications experience to a contemporary version of a shopping spree. Shopping on the internet is a major convenience, but using the internet for that alone is an enormous social restriction and detriment to the full participation of residents in the nation’s political, social, and cultural life.

The problem is huge and it affects everyone in this society and there are a few things we can do…right now…during this United Nations’ International Decade of People of African Descent. These should be demands by our movements and points of unity among them:

* Train and empower Black technologists and technology users. This would represent programs of real training and not some partial “training program” designed to steer young people of color into stifling and socially negative corporate jobs.

* Actively discourage hate speech and cultivate online cultures of tolerance and mutual respect. Free speech is a real right; racial abuse isn’t and the Internet doesn’t have to accept that. All a chat provider would have to do is to crisply and sharply answer hate speech expressions — they’re pretty easy to see — and make clear that this is contrary to the provider’s policy. There’s much they can do in addition but that alone would be powerful.

* Organize to build more centers for Black thinking and a clearer strategy for publicizing and popularizing content generated by people of African descent. In short, stop “ghetto-izing” black thinking on the Internet by funding and supporting Black-run research and thought centers and facilitating the publication of their work.

* Resist and reverse the privatization and corporate concentration of the internet by defending net neutrality and developing and supporting free and open source software and open access publishing. After all, that is the essence of the free Internet.

In a digital age, democracy and freedom depend on our ability to communicate with one another in an equitable and fair manner. It is clear that the long-term impacts of racism persist and indeed are amplified through technology. Today’s struggle for emancipation relies upon securing the right to free and equitable communication, which is critical to the achievement of all other human rights.

Weekend Edition
March 22, 2019
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