Closing the Digital Divide Is the dream of racial equality stuck in an infinite loop?

Hal Plotkin
Wednesday, October 8, 1998

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/1998/10/19/divide.DTL

I’ve been thinking a lot about infinite loops lately. I am something of an expert on the subject, having created dozens of them in my first BASIC computer programming class.

For the uninitiated, an infinite loop is when one line of a computer program instructs the computer to go to another line which, in turn, sends it back to the first line. Although the computer screen is usually frozen at such moments, or blank, the computer itself is actually humming right along, repeating the same mistake into infinity.

My experience with infinite loops came to mind during last month’s first Open Source Developer day meeting in San Jose. It was an exciting event. Several hundred computer programmers were gathered in the throes of creating another revolutionary, this-changes-everything industry.

New companies were being formed in the hallways, near the bulletin board, and in the parking lot. And then it hit me: with the exception of waiters and service personnel, there were fewer than five African-Americans or Latinos in the room.

That news probably doesn’t surprise anyone who read the recent government report on the Digital Divide. Whites, according to the data, are more than twice as likely to own computers than Blacks or Hispanics and roughly three times as likely to have on-line access at home. (Interestingly, everyone else, i.e. Asian Americans, was lumped into the “Other Not Hispanic” category and were more likely than anyone to own computers).

While Blacks and Hispanics have made up some ground in PC ownership over the past three years, the online access gap is particularly troubling, widening a disparity where it matters most. The result is a nation increasingly segregated by technical expertise along racial lines.

The timing of this is particularly tragic. Although the computer industry might look to outsiders like a closed shop where the big companies have everything all locked up, the truth is that high-tech is still very much in its infancy. Less than 4 percent of the world’s population currently own a personal computer.

Likewise, the amount of consumer software now available, up from practically nothing two decades ago, is but a tiny fraction of what it will be once the next wave of high bandwidth-driven applications, like video conferencing, digital entertainment, and distance learning come fully online.

The time is still ripe to get in on the ground floor of this burgeoning new global market. Taking advantage of this opportunity is particularly important for minority groups* who, by and large, didn’t get a chance to own oil companies, railroads, banks, or utilities. High-tech is their best chance to finally grab a piece of the economic infrastructure.

(*For the sake of expediency, “minority groups” in this column refers specifically to Blacks and Hispanics because Asians are not statistically underrepresented in Technology.)

Unfortunately, that’s not happening. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science 20 percent fewer African-Americans and 18 percent fewer Hispanics enrolled in graduate programs in science and engineering in 1997 as compared to 1996.

So why isn’t it happening? Racism, of course, is a factor. But I believe a bigger reason is related to a blunder in the fight against racism and its pernicious effects. In recent years, many mainstream civil rights groups, once at the vanguard of social progress, have been caught up in the catastrophic affirmative-action debate. It is, in many ways, a classic infinite loop, consuming energy as arguments circle back on themselves until they leave us right back where we started.

Taking bait carefully laid out by their adversaries, groups that won popular support arguing for equal treatment under the law lost much of that support by defending government-sanctioned racial and gender preferences. It’s very hard to move forward when you are playing defense.

No matter how energetically racial preferences are supported large numbers of people, a majority it seems certain, don’t buy the idea that people should be treated differently by the government based on race or gender. And even if the majority did approve, recent Supreme Court rulings leave little room for state-sanctioned discrimination.

As a result, what may be the single best opportunity in history to more speedily close the income gap between whites and some minorities is passing us by. The irony is that many of these high-tech industries, computer programming in particular, are perfectly suited to people who possess the special skills it takes to live on the margins of society.

Economy of motion is everything; the ability to make something out of nothing is critical. These are precisely the skills the poor and the dispossessed have in abundance.

A friend of mine who is a computer programmer tells me that most of the best programmers he knows are people who knew what it was like to be broke. They instinctively understand the importance of not wasting a single keystroke.

The other advantage the high-tech industry offers minorities is found in its more meritocratic patterns. If you can write a good program that solves someone’s problem, or solves it even two seconds faster than a competing program, you’ve got steady, high-paying work; you might even have your own company.

In this fast-growing sector of the economy, it doesn’t matter which country club you belong to, where you play golf, or what college you attended. Unlike other industries, minorities and women don’t have to be twice as good as white males to get ahead. They just have to be at least as good, and at least as prepared.

Continuing the polarizing fight over racial preferences won’t help close this digital divide. Rather, we need to bring the civil rights movement back to its roots: fighting for racial equality. It doesn’t mean changing goals, just tactics.

Racial or gender preferences are not required to move forward. Instead, we need simple fairness so that all students, regardless of race or gender, have equal access to the education and training that leaves them with something valuable to offer potential employers.

We should be asking questions like: Is the technical education available to minorities equivalent to what is provided for whites? Do the schools in East Los Angeles or Oakland offer as many opportunities to learn HTML programming as those in, say, Palo Alto or Beverly Hills?

Do minority students in poorer school districts have the same access to high-tech tutors and computers enjoyed by students in more wealthy, typically whiter, school districts? Are there ways we can put more computers into the homes of disadvantaged students?

If we can put the digital divide on the front burner we might, for example, be able to encourage the best and most successful high-tech companies to make larger investments in direct support of education and training. A handful of companies are already doing this in modest ways.

But the efforts they are putting forth don’t come anywhere close to the crusade they mustered, raising $40 million dollars in a matter of months, when Prop. 211 threatened to hit them in the pocketbooks by increasing shareholder lawsuits.

With creative tactics, it might still be possible to make these same executives understand that their financial interests are similarly threatened by the growing digital divide. The recent costly battle to import more foreign workers waged by the leaders of the high-tech lobbying group TechNet, underscores what the industry has at stake.

The version of the H-1B visa law which greased its way through Congress requires high-tech firms to pay a $500 fee to the government for every imported foreign worker. That may seem a small price. But it’s only the opening ante. It’s likely additional punitive fees and penalties will be added in the years ahead if the high-tech industry continues to leave large segments of society behind.

Silicon Valley’s new titans might want to consider lessons learned by previous magnates, like John D. Rockefeller Sr., who waited until the government started busting up his empire before he discovered the utility of enlightened philanthropy.

There is plenty of room for such efforts. The number of scholarships available for students interested in high-tech is paltry to the point of embarrassment, particularly for minority students. The venerable and recently revitalized NAACP, for example, is able to offer a total of just $18,000 in scholarships each year to a handful of aspiring science students in a country of more than 280 million people. In contrast, high-tech executives hoping to convince President Clinton to sign the bill allowing more foreign workers recently paid $25,000 each per plate of herb-encrusted salmon.

One generation ago, thousands of activists put their bodies on the line, and some lost their lives, in order to secure African Americans the right to vote, ride in the front of the bus, and eat a ham sandwich at the lunch counter of their choice. The stakes are much higher now. Whether large numbers of racial minorities will be left behind as technology moves forward is very much an open question.

Fortunately, the tools of our deliverance from the economic residue left by generations of racial imbalance are now at hand. We can get there from here. But first, we need a new set of approaches to these problems that don’t re-ignite arguments about granting preferences based solely on race. Only then will we be able to break the infinite loop that has hobbled us at the precise moment when we should be making our greatest strides.

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