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The Black Internet Agenda and Digital Inclusion In the Age of Obama

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President Obama has taken heat in recent weeks for his so-called lack of a Black agenda. Despite the passage of last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and this year's HIRE Act and health care reform bill, some would suggest that the president isn't moving fast enough to help underserved communities.

Although the cumulative effect of the above mentioned legislation, all of which President Obama has signed into law, will provide hundreds of billions of dollars in aid and necessary resources to minority and impoverished communities, his lack of a "Black Agenda" is making headline news as prominent civil rights leaders and media personalities debate the merits of President Obama's action and intentions toward the Black community.

Now, I'm a tech guy and I don't pretend to know all the subtle nuances of politics and policy. But as I step back and survey the current landscape, it seems that this notion of a Black Agenda has also steeped into discussions about national broadband policy and media reform. These days, some are not just pursuing a National Broadband Plan, but are looking to discern a Black Internet Agenda and establish the parameters of what such a plan should look like. They want to decide who gets to participate in this discussion, and dictate to the masses whose views are right and wrong, and determine who is able to support the interests of the Black community.

I have noticed a decided tone by some in the blogosphere that there is only one way to create broadband opportunities for minority and underserved communities. There is an underlying assumption that we should all "be on the same side", and those who think of different ways to pursue broadband equality and digital inclusion are in the wrong, or are somehow having their voices bought and bartered to the highest bidder.

Personally, I ascribe to the philosophy that 'there is more than one way to skin a cat,' and I encourage a variety of opinions and methodologies geared toward the same end goal. Be clear, we may advocate different ways of getting there, but we all want broadband equality to become a reality for every American.

I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey and was able to create a successful career path for myself because of my understanding of media, technology and the Internet. I would hope that my experience is not anomalous, and would like nothing more than to see every low-income, minority, underserved and underrepresented child in this country get the same chance at success and prosperity that I had and still enjoy today. I understand that broadband access and adoption are fundamental to this goal, which is why I have devoted a substantial part of my talents to increasing and encouraging online entrepreneurship by kids who look like me and grew up in circumstances similar to mine.

We no doubt have a long way to go, but this new tenor of infighting that is emerging, I think, stands in the way of true progress. I am not interested in tearing other people down, or engaging in race baiting and name-calling just because their opinions differ from mine. I don't think it's progressive or productive, but I am increasingly aware that not everyone shares my same vision of finding common ground.

Within the new generation of civil rights thinkers and activists, there are a few people who think that progress requires destruction of those who came before us. Many of these people are my contemporaries. They are people whose work I've followed and whose principles I can respect, even though I may choose to disagree with them. The people who these modern activists choose to criticize and disregard, however, share a tremendous legacy of civil rights leadership at a time when life wasn't as easy as we have it today. Many of the leaders who have been called out in recent discussions about broadband policy and digital inclusion have been beaten and jailed because of the color of their skin and their defense of principles which resulted in me having the multitude of opportunities that I enjoy today. It is for this reason that I cannot blindly dismiss their concerns for the impact that some broadband policies presently taking shape at the FCC could have on communities of color.

It's easy to sit behind a computer and smear vile invective at those you disagree with, especially when you feel emboldened by the wrath of hundreds of people who think just like you. But as the civility fades, some among us seem to be losing sight of our real purpose in battle: we are trying to combat digital inequality; we are trying to fight digital illiteracy; we want to bring an end to the 49% and 59% broadband adoption rates among Hispanics and African Americans, respectively; we want to eradicate the digital divide across economic lines, where people making less than $20,000 a year adopt broadband at a rate of 40%, while those making $50,000 or less only adopt broadband at a rate of 52%.

Since battle lines have been drawn, what does this Black Internet Agenda actually look like?

I don't have all the answers, but I do have a few suggestions for what should be included:

  • Affordable, accessible broadband for all communities - urban and rural;
  • Programs that promote broadband awareness and digital literacy;
  • Incentives for minority businesses to get and stay online;
  • A variety of affordable devices that can be used to access the Internet; and
  • Relevant applications that transcend entertainment (i.e. government services, financial literacy, and economic development tools) to help spur adoption.
  • Entrepreneurial Education programs that show how to use the Internet to create new businesses.

If we can poke our heads above the endless prattle and hateful clamor long enough to focus on what a Black Internet Agenda really looks like, we'd find that we're really on the same side; we just have different ways of arriving at a solution. That said, if the concerns leveled by some about broadband policy turn out to be false, great, the better for us all. But if their concerns point to legitimate problems, if there is a chance that minority communities can be negatively impacted by certain net neutrality principles or other policies, isn't it better to examine those issues now before we create an even greater digital chasm in this country?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have had us "turn the other cheek" while Malcolm X taught that we should pursue equality "by any means necessary." Though their methods were different, their advocacy was necessary and sincere. And it is precisely because of their joint presence and activity in history that we have been able to level the playing field to the extent that we have today.

In a game of winners and losers where broadband adoption is key, we can't waste time bickering among ourselves when we have a real battle to fight and win. We cannot rely on divisive tactics that would separate us and dissuade us from achieving our common agenda. President Obama said it best while campaigning for our country's highest elected office, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington...I'm asking you to believe in yours." If we hope to effect positive change, we must work collectively around issues of consensus.

Change will only come if we work together to support the greater good.

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