Digital Life

Reversing Technology's Racial Divide

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Technology experts say there is still a vast "digital divide," with more people of color with little or no access to computers or the Internet than ever before. Ed Gordon discusses ways of reversing the trend with News & Notes tech expert Mario Armstrong and Tyrone Taborn, chairman and CEO of Career Communications Group.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The digital divide is growing. Today there are more people of color with little or no access to computers and the Internet than ever before. This is a growing concern as the world moves more and more to becoming technology-based. Blacks are also lagging on the business side of the telecom industry, an industry that many are calling the new Industrial Revolution. Mario Armstrong is a technology correspondent for NPR and a regular participant on this program, and Tyrone Taborn is chairman and CEO of Career Communications Group, a development company that specializes in technology information for African-Americans. Both join us from member station WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland.

Gentlemen, good to have you with us today. Appreciate it.

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Technology Expert): Thanks for having us.

Mr. TYRONE TABORN (Career Communications Group): Good to be here.

GORDON: I should note that I have, over the course of the last couple of months, been going around the country, just by happenstance, moderating forums, including one for the Congressional Black Caucus, on the importance of technology and more importantly, the infusion needed from the African-American community not only on the consumer side but the business side.

Mario, you were recently with me at one of these forums held by the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Operation Push. Talk to people about why it is so important on all fronts for African-Americans to be sure that they are involved in this boom of technology.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, and the bottom line is that was a great event that we were at, that the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Jesse Jackson put on. And it's great to see that they are putting this telecommunications and technology policy back on the forefront of the agenda, because I do feel that the term digital divide has kind of gone down in its hype, and many people, including the federal government and others, feel that the digital divide has closed and therefore there's no more disparity, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. So this is very, very critical.

I liken this to essential life skills. At the end of the day, if our communities do not gravitate, embrace and acknowledge that technology is a key that can unlock pure economic wealth and can unlock better life potential possibilities, then we really have a problem in front of us. And part of the issue is that we haven't really done the best job of making this relevant and we haven't done the best job of exposing and showing communities how to embrace this technology to better their outcomes.

GORDON: Tyrone, I have likened this to the change of the turn of the century that we saw the Industrial Revolution that really changed the world as we know it. This is, indeed, the same kind of thing, isn't it?

Mr. TABORN: It's even greater than that. Since the Second World War, as you know, we've had the greatest technological growth and that will continue. The problem with this whole discussion of the digital divide rather than talking about the digital inclusion, we wound up having people focused on computer ownership and Internet access, where instead of creating growth in technological jobs, and our kids are simply not getting the kind of education that's going to allow them to experience the wealth in all of these new technologies will continue to be discovered and produced over the next decades.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I mean, at the end of the day here, Ed, I mean, we're talking about the digital divide that I would like to see being measured is not access to technology. Just because you have access doesn't mean you know how to use it. Just because you have access to Microsoft Excel--I had one parent say to me, `Well, my son knows math.' And I said, `Well, how?' She said, `Well, he understands formulas in Excel.' I said, `Well, wait, Excel is doing the computation for him. He doesn't necessarily know that.' So just because I have access to an airport doesn't mean I know how to fly a plane. What I would like to get to of the divide discussion is where are we vs. consumers vs. creators? That's the digital divide that we need to pay attention to. Forget consumption; let's get to creation.

GORDON: And we should note, Tyrone, that we are, as a community, lagging on all of those fronts, from the consumer side, which we are clearly doing a much better job of, particularly the young generation, in terms of knowing the rudimentary technology and the like. But the idea of when we see the telecom industry and what it is about to become, just the sheer dollars that will be made, if we're not on the ground floor in all of this, we will be sorely, sorely behind.

Mr. TABORN: Here's our challenge. Our challenge is that this technology is changing so quickly, are we prepared for this? This year half a million children of color will graduate from high school. Ed, less than 21,000 will have had the basic skills to get them into an engineering program. Out of that, we will graduate less than 4,000 blacks in engineering this year out of our nation's colleges.

Now let's compare that to what's going to happen in India. America will graduate 72,000 engineers, less than 4,000 being black. India will graduate half a million; China will graduate even more.

GORDON: And Mario, we should note, and one of the things that we talked about during the forum for Operation Push as well as the Congressional Black Caucus forum, is the idea that we're not just talking about, when we talk about the fields of math and science and technology in general as Tyrone just suggested--we're not just talking about a problem for African-Americans. We're talking about a problem in terms of people going into these fields for all of America.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, we are. If you look at right now who has Internet access at home, according to the Civil Rights Education Fund--they did a study called Are We Really a Nation Online--and blacks have 40 percent, Latinos are at 38 percent and whites are at 67 percent. So this continues to be a gap. Also, if you look at the makeup of the IT work force, the gender disparity is ridiculous. Seventy-eight percent are men, and women are 22 percent. Some of these barriers of feeling like stereotypes that maybe women and certain minorities aren't skilled in math and science are ridiculous. We are seeing a lack of mentoring and role models in some of these leadership roles, and there are still some negative perceptions of IT work. We have to make technology, information technology, cool. We have to make it exciting. We have to get kids at the middle and high school level to expose them to people that are doing some magnificent things with technology so that they get infused early on.

The bottom line is, Ed, you hit it on the head--I mean, the wireless subscribers, every--I don't know how many African-Americans you know without a cell phone, but 194 million people have cell phones, and so we are looking at some opportunities that continue to happen in the wireless space in telecom, and this is all happening while the US still ranks 10th in broadband capacity and broadband access.

GORDON: Tyrone, how realistic is it to assume that we're going to be able to get African-Americans and other minorities in this game, playing catch-up and the like, when you look at simply the infrastructure, for instance, in many large urban areas and the capacity for growth and where the initial front will be for, for instance, phone companies and the like who are playing really hardball to see who gets on the ground floor? How realistic is it to assume that urban areas are going to be able to play ball? The infrastructure just isn't there ofttimes.

Mr. TABORN: Well, all we have to do is look at India and we can tell that with a concentrated focus, we can do a lot in a short time period. The real challenge for us is to tell the story of women and minorities who are already leading the charge in science and technology. For example, we all used a personal computer, the IBM personal computer, but that would not have been possible without an African-American engineer named Dr. Mark Dean who still works for IBM, who holds the three original patents on the PC, and because of that, we had the entire PC revolution that created people like Michael Dell, Bill Gates. That's an African-American. If more of our kids knew about that, I think they would be encouraged to enter technology.

You can't walk into Wal-Mart without Nancy Stewart, the vice president of information systems, who controls the world's largest storage system--Nancy Stewart controls that. You know, I was encouraged when I saw Hurricane Katrina from this aspect. The government didn't do a whole lot well, but Wal-Mart did an awful lot. That was a black woman who controlled all of that. Our kids would be much more excited if we could get those kind of stories out.

GORDON: Mario, I know that you think it's very important to hammer home the idea of perception and getting young people in particular but African-Americans in general to understand how important we can be and have been in this field, and I know that you have programs there in Baltimore that you've been working with to update...


GORDON: ...particularly young people on this.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Yeah, and two of those are--in Baltimore city right now, what we are going is we are putting together a program which we will be launching mid-November. And this is something that I'm seeing happen in San Francisco, New York and Chicago, all through a national non-profit called One Economy, where we are providing what's called a Digital Access Fund. In other words, low-income communities will be able to buy brand-new technology at below-market rates, and they'll be able to do that in a very creative and unique way where they can apply for a loan. Most of these folks are credit-challenged and don't have good credit capabilities but all of that's being waived for the purpose of this program. So this is digital inclusion at its best. It's also financial literacy and empowerment and it really should start to change the dynamic of going from just being a consumer to using the tools to empower my life, to empower my health, to empower my education.

And the other effort is the Urban Video Game Academy. And this is just pure fun, Ed. This is tapping at the core of what kids today love to do, and that's play video games. The challenge is parents and educators don't realize that in order to create a video game, you have to have a solid understanding of math, physics, literature and programming, all of which are core academic subject areas in school, and we're seeing some phenomenal change in terms of attitude now, embracing core academic subjects...

GORDON: And...

Mr. ARMSTRONG: schools due to this.

GORDON: And, Tyrone, we should note that it is so important to continue to push this word, because where there were programs that existed from the federal government to try to get minorities involved in online ventures and the like, those days have gone the way of the Edsel, and so now it's most important for us to make sure that we understand, again, as I keep harping on this, the importance of the future and how technology will really be front and center in your life.

Mr. TABORN: And that's why supporting our historically black colleges that produce the majority of the engineers in the United States is so absolutely critical. You know, we do two programs that I think really bring attention to this, and that is the Black Engineer of the Year, where we gather some of the brightest minds throughout the United States, actually throughout the world, to tackle these issues. And we also have a program called Black Family Technology Awareness Week, which really works at a grassroot level in communities to get the communities and families involved in this technology opportunity.

GORDON: All right. Well, gentlemen, we appreciate you coming in, and we'll continue to bring this word to folks down the line because, as we said, this is not going away. It's going to be front and center.

Mario Armstrong is a technology correspondent for NPR, and Tyrone Taborn is chairman and CEO of Career Communications Group. Both joined us from member station WYPR in Baltimore.

I thank you both for being with us today.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Ed, for spotlighting this important issue.

Mr. TABORN: Thank you.

GORDON: Coming up on today's roundtable, we'll hear from Jack Kemp on the right to vote for ex-felons. And also the White House braces for impact as the CIA leak investigation heads toward an apparent conclusion.

This is NPR News.

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