Technology: the New Frontier of Inequality or the New American Promise?
Speech for The 2013 Dr. Martin Luther King Breakfast in Portland
Dr. Irma McClaurin
January 21, 2013
Screening Dates for The Skanner Foundation’s ML King Breakfast:
Saturday 1/26/2013, 11:00 AM, Channel 22
Sunday 1/27/2013, 6:00 PM, Channel 23
Wednesday 1/30/2013, 8:00 AM, Channel 22
Tuesday 2/5/2013, 5:16 AM, Channel 11
Friday 2/8/2013, 11:00 PM, Channel 23
Program is 1hour 43 minutes
He presented America a vision of hope. He gave us a dream on that fateful day in 1963; he gave us a dream in which he articulated his belief in a racial equality and social justice. In his own words:
“ I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
This man, this prophetic and visionary man, born also reminded us of the broken promises woven into the fabric of America’s past and present, & scattered throughout its history. Dr. King reminded us on that momentous occasion on August 28, 1963, that those to whom we refer as the “Founding Fathers” of this Republic, crafted a document—their own Emancipatory document—the Declaration of Independence, in which they mapped out the premises and propositions that were the prerequisites to forming a new nation of greatness and a new vision of citizenship founded in freedom.
We have to believe that they were men of good intentions, honorable men, men of faith, business men, learned men, (some slaveholding men) but men nonetheless, and so they also wove into the original credo of this country—a fundamental belief that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”But what about the women? Were included? Not then. Were Blacks also created equal? Not then.
The crafters of these visionary documents, these men, did not say. And so, through omission, they wove into the credo of this country a trap door. A door of contradiction through which they could EXCLUDE those whom they deemed unworthy of citizenship—those people who were Black and slaves, those people who were white and women, those people who were Black, and slaves, and women.
We have spent decades, fought a Civil Wars, lived almost 100 years in legal apartheid from 1865 to 1965, founded a Civil Rights movement, and passed legislation to close that trap door of contradictions in the hope of restoring two documents to their grandness, the Declaration of Independence & the Constitution of the United States.
Fifty years ago, Dr. King reminded us so eloquently of the contradictions embedded in our country’s favored documents. He observed: “…When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every America was to fall heir; …it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
Not in My Lifetime?
Today, as we celebrate the birthday of this prophet. Today, on the birthday of this visionary leader so filled with hope so many years ago, a man born January 15, 1929, who I now realize never got the opportunity to reach my age. He died at the young age of 38.
I stand before you to say that since that momentous event of the historic March on Washington and the declaration of a war on poverty, since MLK, Jr. shared with us his vision, in the intervening 50 years of struggle and the press for racial equality for the common good, we have made some progress. Yes, we have made some progress.
And the proof of that progress is not only this celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday on this official American holiday, but also another event taking place today in Washington, DC, the Second Inauguration of America’s first African American President. The Honorable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr dared to imagine for believers and non-believers a future where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. He had the audacity to imagine today fifty years before it occurred.
The Inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama as the President of the United States of America for a second term is living proof that MLK’s legacy lives, that the dream was not an impossible one. This is a moment that those of us who witnessed and benefitted from the Civil Right Movement could never believe that such a moment would happen in our life time. And yet it did. Let us take a moment to reflect on the enormity of President Obama’s Inauguration as we honor and celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Living the Impossible Dream
Someone remarked that President Obama’s re-election is proof positive that his success was not a fluke, and he stands as a living symbol that if you can dream it, you can become it. It is a message that we must embrace in our own lives and instill in our children and the youth.
The content of character is what defines President Obama. He is a man of intellect whose calm demeanor in the face of strong opposition, is reminiscent of the very man whose birth we celebrate today. Through President Obama, the beacon of character content and ethical principles that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. upheld shines through as bright beacons. These qualities are what allows President Barack Hussein Obama, an African American, to govern all the citizens of the United States. Even as he faces tremendous hostility and opposition from some who appear vested in seeing him fail. But like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our President, our African American President, is unshaken. Failure does not appear to be a word choice in his vocabulary/ dictionary. He is grayer, to be sure, but more confident, and ready to fight the good & necessary fight. And so, Dr. King’s vision of being judged by the content of one’s character was right on point.
The Tight Rope of Inequality
But even as we embrace this enormous change in the political direction of our country equality for all remains a delicate balancing act. America is still walking a tight rope of inequality. Although the majority of voting Americans helped to elect an African American man to guide the country for a second term, we have not established a post-racial society. Race still matters, poverty still matters, and racism is not a figment of our imaginations. America is walking a tight rope in which the democratic promise and social contract of equality stand at one end and poverty/limited access/and racism stands at the other. The safety net of a denial of an authentic life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as a fully vested citizen is still just out of reach.
America seems indecisive. On the one hand, we stand in awe of the progress we have made to have elected a person who only a few hundred years ago, even just a decade ago, could never have aspired to such a position---AND DARE TO DREAM HE COULD WIN.
But there are those Americans who are fearful that as the country struggles to become more inclusive, as America struggles to embrace social change, they are fearful that they will lose their privilege. If we are to ride the crest of change of this Obama era, we must critically examine our economic system that is rooted in oppositions of those who have wealth and those who do not. Is there a middle ground? I am not talking about the elevation or restoration of the Middle-Class; I am talking about the eradication of poverty.
In a recent Huffington Post blog, Linetta J. Gilbert, one of my former colleagues from the Ford Foundation, and Claire Gaudiani, co-founders of The Declaration Initiative asks this question about poverty in the 21st Century in America.
“How can we tolerate the fact that more than 20.5 million Americans live on less than $11,000 a year for a family of four -- half of the federally defined poverty level? That means living on just $7.55 a day. What's worse is that the quality of life of these poorest Americans resembles that of people in the world's least developed countries.
Americans value fairness. Yet 20.5 million Americans are born into and ensnared in a poverty trap, never getting a fair break. What has happened to America's promise that everyone get access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”
Fifty years ago Dr. King told us that America had defaulted on its promise and that “…it has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.”
Five years later, and one year before his assassination, he expounded a broader view of what the critical issue was. He asserts in his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community” that poverty is the single most critical issue that cross-cuts every arena of life and impacts all Americans.
In his own words: “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out. There are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore, I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.”
For Dr. King, regardless of race, POVERTY was the 800 lb gorilla in the room; poverty is the deal breaker for America today. How ironic that we eradicated the Jim Crow laws of segregation, but we have not been able to eliminate poverty. We have expanded opportunities in education, employment, and healthcare through integration, and yet poverty in each of these areas too often dictates the outcomes of who has access. And I am not suggesting that we have resolved the matter of racism. There is no question in my mind that racism and poverty are integrally linked in the lives of people of color.
I think Dr. King would agree that we have won some battles—and they are significant—no question about it. Too many people struggled, lost their lives, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to minimize the achievements of the last five decades. WE have won many battles to eliminate racial injustice, but the war is not over.
Living in the Technology Age
And so where do we stand thirteen years into the 21st Century? Former President Clinton described in his second inaugural speech the choices facing America in this new technological epoch:
“At the dawn of the 21st century a free people must now choose to shape the forces of the Information Age and the global society, to unleash the limitless potential of all our people, and, yes, to form a more perfect union.”
Powerful words, inspiring words, but tell me, how do you “shape the forces of the Information Age” or what I choose to call the Technology Age, if you are poor and enmeshed in poverty?
How do you contend with living in a global society, if you are poor and enmeshed in poverty?
How do you “unleash the limitless potential of “ of POOR people?
Today, Poverty has many faces, it wears many hats, but most significantly poverty acts as a wall—a barrier. Poverty prevents. It prevents individuals and groups from moving forward. If you lack the economic means, then you cannot acquire an education, even if admission is no longer blocked.
If you lack the economic means, then you do not have access to technology—one of the single most critical forces driving our country and shaping the world today. So, if Dr. King were to honor us with his presence today, what might he say? Might he contemplate the current state of affairs, and the way in which technology rules our lives? Might he consider that perhaps in tandem with poverty that technology represents the newest frontier of inequality?
Or might he embrace the simultaneity of thought for which he was noted, and add that technology may represent a means by which poverty gap can be closed, and at the same time, it may serve as a barrier for many of our countries poor. You decide for yourself at the end of this talk.
Technology Today: Opportunity or Barrier?
Click, click, click, click!
That is the sound of a computer mouse; how many of you use a mouse with your computer? Wait, let me back up. How many of you have computers at home? How many of you have internet? How many of you have high speed internet? Now how many of you use a mouse? If you raised your hand in the affirmative then please know, and I apologize in advance because I am going to hurt some feelings, please know that by current technology standards, you are considered outdated and obsolete.
How many of you have an iphone? Hold them up –me too. I know you’ve been checking your email while I’ve been talking. It’s okay. How many of you have Androids? Hold them up. We iPhone owners forgive you as does Steve Jobs, wherever is he passing this phase of his existence after death. Put them back in your pocket and stop the silent scrolling.
Click, click, click, click. While that is the sound of the mouse, this is the sound of the iPhone and its clones: (SILENCE) The face of progress today is the touch screen. These phones, along with ipods (how many of you have one?) iPads (how many owners here?) have radically altered our world.
Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple computers,” and the vision force behind the invention of the iPOD, the iPhone, and the iPad, and pretty much everything else that has shaped and advanced our current digital and virtual worlds, created a “technology revolution” with his products. In his mind, he set out not to build a better computer as a tool, but to “change the world. “His epic ad when he returned to Apple after being ousted read in part:
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. …You can quote the, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the onlything you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
How many Black children and poor children (and I link these together because historically there has been a strong correlation between being born Black and being born in poverty) lay in their beds at night and dream of changing the world? With President Obama as President of the United States, they now have a concrete role model.
Steve Jobs had no idea that in changing the world, he would contribute to what has been dubbed “the digital divide” and what I sometimes call the Technology Gap. According to Wikipedia, the digital divide “…refers to any inequalities between groups, broadly construed, in terms of access to, use of, or knowledge of information and communication technologies. The digital divide in the United States (and other countries) refers to inequalities between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socioeconomic and other demographic levels.”
Jakob Nielsen writing on the Digital Divide for The Nielsen Norman Group characterizes the digital divide as having three stages: the economic divide—who can afford to purchase a computer, but viewed as resolvable as the price of computers become more and more affordable. The other two are the “usability divide” and the “empowerment divide.”
Under usability, Nielsen notes that “40% of the population has lower literacy skills” and are unable to take advantage of what computers have to offer because of poor reading and comprehension skills. He also explains that most websites are written for people reading at a college level, especially government websites.
With regard to the empowerment divide, Nielsen writes, “…[it] is a hard one: even if computers and the internet were extraordinarily easy to use, not everybody would make full use of the opportunities that such technology affords.” Some of the examples he gives is that most users don’t understand advanced search engines and accept the first search results that are presenting to them.
The Technology Revolution will NOT be televised
Back to the clicks, the outdated click, click, click, click. Borrowing from the late Gil Scott Heron, think about this:
Click, click, click, click.
The Technology Revolution /will not be televised.
It will not be brought to you/by Comcast, Direct TV, or AT& T Uverse.
It will not be available in analog,
through cable, HDM1 or HDM2.
The Technology Revolution
will be/is LIVE.
It will be uploaded onto UTube
with 10,000 views per second;
it will be streamed live,
while being tweeted using
140 characters or less.
The Technology Revolution
will tell the world to
if you are fortunate
enough to own a computer
and understand how to use it.
The Technology Revolution
will not take place in a Science Fiction
book, because it is already here.
Eighteen years ago, the Commerce Department
first wrote of the “digital divide:”
“While a standard telephone line
can be an individual’s pathway
to the riches of the Information Age,…
a personal computer and modem
are rapidly becoming the keys
to the vault.”
The Technology Revolution
say some, through the internet, is opening untold doors
of information and opportunity.”
Are we ready??
Who does the Technology Revolution serve?
Says that voice of reason
and of power and privilege:
If you…[are] poor, rural or a member
of a minority group ,you [are ] fast
being left behind.
The Technology Revolution
will not be televised or videotaped.
It will be accessed on iPods, IPhones, IPads,
and smart replicas called Androids.
It will have background music compliments
of the iTunes store.
It will be an App that you can download
and navigate on your phone;
it will be a tag reader with a box to scan
and take you directly to a website.
The Technology Revolution will increase the digital divide between the haves and have nots;
it will leave you behind if you are a member of
the “…46% of poorest households [who] do not own
a computer…[as compared to the] only 4% of the wealthiest
households that go without one.”
The Technology Revolution will not care
that in 2010 to 2011 …[67.9] million people
were not able to access…[internet] sites…regularly.
The Technology Revolution will not care
that in the same time period, “49.1 million people
have fallen below the poverty line.”
The Technology Revolution is not interested
in the correlations between poverty
and lack of access to the internet.
The Technology Revolution is not concerned
that “Hispanic and African americans are still
less likely to have access to home internet than are
The Technology Revolution
is not interested in rural access;
it does not care that “…you can live
on a farm only 50 miles from the nearest big
city, say New York or Chicago, and be
unable to compete as effectively for business
as somebody sitting in a skyscraper.”
In Oregon, “60 out of every 1,000 workers in the private sector are employed by high-tech firms” placing it as the 11th highest rate in the nation. Technology is here to stay in Oregon. But is Oregon’s population prepared? Especially its poor?
Not exactly, in the state of Oregon, according to the Children’s Partnership has “Youth and Technology Fact Sheet:”
“56% of households…earning less than $15,000 per year do not own a computer compared to 33% of all Oregon’s households and 38% of all households nationally.”
61% of the same low-income households do not use the internet at home compared to 39% statewide and 45% nationally.
“In 19% of schools in Oregon, the majority of teachers (at least half) are ‘beginners’ when it comes to using technology (the national average is 15%).”
So here we stand in the midst of a Technology Revolution and poor children are the least prepared; teachers are unprepared to train them; and a little less than a third of students in school today lack basic skills in math and reading to be able to harness this technology.
This is the dark side of the Technology Gap and the Digital Divide. Is there a glimmer of light—YES.
If we learned nothing else from Dr. King it should be that we must tackle the contradictions of our society directly and begin to craft the kind of society today in which we wish to live tomorrow.
And one of the lessons Dr. King left us was that of the power of collective action. None of us can do this alone. So let me share with you a potential model of collective action—a community-university partnership.
It is not THE Solution. It is not a magic bullet, but it is a start.
In 2005, the University of Minnesota began a series of discussions with an underserved community called North Minneapolis consisting of three zip code. Economically the city had invested the least resources in its development, 56% of all the mortgage foreclosures in metro Minneapolis occurred in this community, and they were angry. The process began as a top down effort but was transformed through community collective action as a more collaborative venture. I arrived on the scene at the end of 2007. A lot of mistrust had to be conquered, and ultimately the University had to learn to LISTEN, truly LISTEN to the community and its needs, and place its own agenda on hold.
There is a good ending to this story: In 15 months, we completed a 21,000sf renovation of the facility for the first Urban Research and Outreach Engagement UROC. It became the symbol of progress and movement towards a collective vision of change. It was technologically a state-of-the-art facility that would house programs committed to improving the lives of people living in North Minneapolis.
The most notable accomplishment was receiving a $2.9M ARRA grant to support Broadband Access for North Minneapolis and other underserved communities across the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In keeping with the agenda that the University needed to demonstrate true commitment, it contributed $750K in cash and in-kind support to bring the entire project total to $3.6M.
The Idea for the grant came from the community—the Minnesota Multicultural Media Consortium comprised of community newspapers (African American, Asian, Hispanic, African, etc).
The ideas for what the grant would accomplish came out of a series of meetings over two-three weeks to craft a plan of action.
We succeeded. We were the first University funded by the Dept. of Commerce in the first round of Broadband Access grants announced and the only proposal initially funded in the entire state of Minnesota.
What made us unique? The grant was both intended to expand Broadband Access among underserved communities AND do Job Creation.
We identified 11 public computer centers not in libraries and schools but located in community-based organizations; we accomplished the following:
Upgraded equipment and enhanced broadband internet connections
Recruited through the Centers community people and trained them to become part of a cadre of BAPs (Broadband Apprentices)— We chose to work with community computer centers because they already have established the trust. Staff are prepared to provide services in in the language of the community users.
We partnered with the community media consortium to get the word out and through their papers to begin to develop an audience reading about technology in their communities. They hired Technology writers and established Technology columns
Where do we go from here?
We are at a turning point in our country in many respects: the first Black President and an economic landscape in which the gap between those who have wealth and security and those who do not is increasing daily.
We are on the verge of a technology tsunami in which those who understand, use, and can manipulate technology will be at an enormous advantage over those who have limited access, cannot harness technology’s full capabilities, and simply use it for entertainment and the most rudimentary functions. You cannot utilize what you don’t understand. It’s like people who pay for 300 channels of cable but only view five channels.
The legacy that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left us with and which we cannot forget is a legacy of moral justice. Dr. King was not an activist in the sense that he set out to consciously change society. He was called to action because he saw the contradictions of our society. His legacy of moral justice asks a simple question: ‘Can our society fulfill its promise of equality for all American citizens?’
That question is no less compelling today as it was when it guided his life. ‘Can this society, rooted so deeply in technology as the chief means of advancement, fulfill its promise of equality for all American citizens?’
Dr. King’s legacy also teaches us a lesson about social justice and being a champion for it. It Cost. It cost Dr. King his life. It cost him his status—had he simply employed his education, there is no doubt he would have been a man of stature. It cost him personal wealth and all of the parts of the American dream to which all of us aspire because he redirected his life and energy to pushing America to deliver on its promise, to fulfill its promissory note, to make good on the bad check of inequality.
His legacy also reminds us that one individual can inspire, but it is collective action that will move the mountain. We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday to honor him and his legacy but renew ourselves as social justice soldiers, to be inspired to continue the struggle, to be leaders who make sure that not only do their organizations (be they in government or in the non-profit sector) not just do things right, but that they do the right thing.
In the arena of technology, no child in America must be left behind. We must make eradicating the Digital Divide and closing the technology gap a priority at the community level, at the national level, and at the global level. Technology has made our lives so interconnected that we cannot sit in our corner of the world and ignore what is happening globally. We must tackle poverty directly and commit to advancing the technology skills and knowledge of those who lack access or have minimal access. We must move the knowledge in poor and underserved communities beyond that of simply consuming technology and only using it for simple functions: entertainment—movies, music, ringtones, Facebook.
We must encourage our youth to have vision and curiosity around technology. We must instill in them the firm belief that they are capable of transforming this world in their life time. We celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday today because it inspires us to believe that anything is possible, including the transformation of an entire country. Dr. King guided us do it during his short lifetime. We can continue his legacy and do it again. He asked us once, “What kind of country do we want?” Our answer should be an America that is equal and delivers on its promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL its citizens.