Historic Black Innovators’ Contributions to Technology Paved the Way for Black Digital Equity Today
Technology is the backbone of society’s advancements and central to our daily lives.
African Americans have made indelible contributions in technology innovation. I think of Dorothy Vaughan, who taught an early programming language at NASA; Dr. Gladys West, who laid the foundation for GPS; and the “Godfather of Silicon Valley,” Roy Clay Sr., who helped develop one of HP’s first computers.
Back in 1970’s Baltimore, one of my first jobs at a men’s clothing store required me to do every task by hand — from logging inventory to checking out customers. Today, that job would be virtually unrecognizable, as workers now navigate digitally with point-of-purchase software, digital inventory trackers, and loyalty apps. They don’t punch a clock like I did, they log their hours online.
That’s not just true of retail, either. A new report released by the National Skills Coalition, in partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, found a staggering 92% of job postings already require basic digital skills. Jobs that require even one digital skill can earn an average of 23% more than jobs requiring no digital skills — an increase of $8,000 in annual income. In other words, nearly every entry-level job and career path today demands digital skills.
Not surprisingly, people of color are more likely to be affected by these gaps. A 2021 Urban Institute study found that while 85% of young white people between ages 16-24 have basic digital skills, only 52% of young black people do. Further compounding the disparities, 29% of black Americans do not have broadband at home – significantly fewer than their white peers.
The late Congressman John Lewis called access to the internet “the civil rights issue of the 21st century” because he understood something important: access and the ability to navigate the internet is essential for economic empowerment and a prerequisite for full participation in a truly democratic society.
So, how do we address this present, fundamental challenge of our times? How do we achieve digital equity? First, we need to acknowledge the challenges.
While some rural regions lack high-speed Internet access, the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law now provides dedicated funds to address the gaps. Fortunately, nearly all the nation is well-wired, but still too many lack broadband at home. Why?
While affordability has historically been a barrier for many, programs now exist to eliminate this. The Federal Government has made a massive investment in broadband access and adoption through the Affordable Connectivity Program, which delivers eligible households with up to $30/month (or up to $75/month on tribal lands) towards their home Internet bills. At Comcast, our Internet Essentials program is available at zero cost to qualifying households, when the ACP credit is applied.
The biggest challenge we face today in achieving digital equity has to do with adoption. We’ve learned we can’t just give people a connection and cross our fingers. We also must give them the support they need to get online, to obtain a device, and to learn how to use the connection and the device to fulfill basic daily needs – like scheduling doctors’ visits or refilling prescriptions. Or developing the basic digital skills needed for the current job market, like submitting resumes and preparing for job interviews. Or furthering one’s education through studying at home or applying to college online.
We’ve also learned that another critical barrier that dissuades many folks from getting online has to do with distrust—whether it be of business or of government. Fortunately, there is a proven strategy to help overcome this barrier: digital navigators.
Digital navigators are trusted, community members with the knowledge to help others overcome barriers and get online. A recent Boston Consulting Group study found that digital navigators helped 65% of study participants get connected and helped one third of respondents find a new job, or earn a higher income.
Their impact can be undeniable. In Detroit, young digital navigators helped members of the St. Patrick Senior Center get online and learn the digital skills to connect with loved ones and access basic services. The result has been a beautiful example of intergenerational collaboration and life-changing skills development for both the digital navigators and their elderly students.
In the spirit of John Lewis and so many civil rights heroes who devoted their talents and passion to helping others, we can all do our part. We can all pitch in to help our families, friends, and neighbors by making them aware of the Affordable Connectivity Program and low-cost services like Internet Essentials. Make yourself available to those who need assistance with technology. Volunteer with local organizations that promote digital literacy. Urge your company or non- profit to seek out initiatives that promote upskilling or start such an initiative yourself.
And, in the spirit of innovators like Ms. Vaughn, Dr. West, and Mr. Clay, let’s redouble our efforts to ensure that everyone can achieve unlimited possibilities made possible through technology and the power of the internet.
Representative Lewis also said, “every generation leaves a legacy.” Let this be ours.