The Second Wave of the Digital Divide

It used to be about Internet access. Now it's access to top jobs and capital to create diverse content.

(The Root) — Today, in early 2013, American media and entertainment face a curious condition. On the one hand, African Americans and other people of color are flocking to movies, Twitter, television and blogs in ever-greater numbers and percentages. We are huge consumers of media. 

On the other hand, the Federal Communications Commission and the Hollywood trade and professional organizations report that the percentages of people of color (and in many categories, women) in senior positions are stagnant or actually declining. Minority ownership is also on the way down. With black ownership and executive ranks dropping, not surprisingly, black-themed shows are falling as well.

In other words: black consumption up, black control declining. The scissors effect. Viewership and media use cutting up, significant media participation cutting down. And equally curious, just as we return a black man to the highest political office in the land, we get fewer black men and women in the “C” suites of American media conglomerates. Right at the same moment that economists and other social scientists agree that media, entertainment and communication are becoming absolutely central to American life, shaping the news and information we get (or don’t get) and defining the ways we define ourselves as a nation and a people, the capacities to tell new, diverse stories is becoming more peripheral. Communication has become more central, people of color more peripheral.

I came to this baleful conclusion as I prepared last November to deliver the annual W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University. Experts from industry, professors from MIT and Harvard University and smart young students came together over three days and talked seriously about these issues. We asked the question, “If W.E.B. Du Bois were with us today, what would he say about the impact of the ‘information revolution’ on communities of color in the United States?”

As former FCC Member Michael Copps, a courageous crusader for wider inclusion into the information society, put it bluntly on the lecture blog, Digital Du Bois, W.E.B. would certainly be angry. And I agree. I think he would be angry because the two most prominent factors that brought brother Obama to the White House were information communication and technology, or “ICT,” which Obama deployed brilliantly to mobilize his ethnic base. Yet as he himself has recognized, the most powerful tools of the modern world — again, ICT — are not getting into the hands of the most dispossessed, who need to use them to improve their lives with better education, better jobs and better citizenship.

Du Bois would be worried because just as he wrote about the precarious position of black people in the transition from America’s agricultural to industrial society, he would recognize how precarious their position is in the transition from the industry society to a knowledge society — in which education and brains replace a strong back and brawn as the means to get ahead.