From Selma to Silicon Valley
Alabama is one of the Civil Right’s Movements most important geographic symbols. In the struggle for Voting Rights in the South, John Lewis and about 600 marchers were beaten and tear-gassed by police, as they attempted to walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on March 7, 1965, a date that has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. On the third attempt, the marchers (including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) were able to complete the fifty-mile journey with the help of the U.S. Army, National Guard and FBI. The Selma to Montgomery Marches were critical in building the political momentum that was necessary for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Voting Rights Act ensured that African-Americans and other disenfranchised groups had greater access to our political system. Over the years we have come to realize that political empowerment in and of itself has not been enough to close educational and economic disparities. In 1965, civil rights activists had to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery from Selma. Today, we have to build a bridge across the digital divide that keeps so many African-Americans from accessing the information and resources they need to compete in the global economy.
According to the Pew Internet Project, only 56% of African-Americans have a broadband internet connection at home, compared to 67% of whites, resulting in an 11-point gap. Many of those without home internet access depend on their local public libraries to conduct online searches for school assignments or job opportunities. Unfortunately, due to nationwide budget cuts many community libraries have been closed, making it even more challenging for the digitally disadvantaged to achieve what’s left of the American dream.
Basic internet access is actually only a relatively small, yet significant part, of a much larger problem. In addition to expanding connectivity, we must also increase digital literacy and innovation among black folk. We may not have to protest with our feet in order to exercise our right to vote, but we are in need of a virtual march to Silicon Valley. The San Francisco Bay area is home to the nation’s most profitable technology companies such as Apple, Google, eBay and Facebook. African-Americans are grossly underrepresented in this region that generates multiple billions of dollars.
There are a few exceptions to the rule. Dr. Mark Dean is IBM’s chief engineer in San Jose. 28 year-old, Michael Seibel is the CEO of Justin TV (a live video-sharing site), based in San Francisco. Sensory Acumen, a consumer electronics company founded by my family members, is a start-up based outside Oakland. They hope to open a manufacturing facility in North Carolina in the future. Though it’s a non-profit based in Atlanta, it’s worth mentioning the Alliance for Digital Equality. ADE is working to ensure access to technology in disadvantaged communities throughout the United States. You don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to be a digital entrepreneur.
With unemployment almost twice as high for African-Americans as it is for white Americans, its time we understand that the solution is not just creating more jobs. We must also cultivate more black-owned businesses in the lucrative industries of technology and media to close the entrepreneurship gap. True freedom cannot be found if the majority of African-Americans remain in a state of economic dependency. There is always work to do in the area of civil rights, but that’s not our greatest challenge. Today in 2011, its time to start “marching” for venture capital.