A number of commonly used appliances and technologies in the United States were invented by African Americans over 50 years ago. The long list of these inventions include blood banking, the home security system, the three-way traffic light, automated elevator doors, and refrigerated trucks.
While the women and men behind these inventions developed their craft in personal and professional laboratories, much of today’s black creative class is accessing critical knowledge and technical instruction through the modern laptop computer on which they design, edit, code, and publish. In order to unlock new and vital inventions for the future, it is critical that officials at every level of government take seriously the racial disparities in broadband internet access, computing devices, and digital literacy that inhibit African American populations nationwide.
One potential area of investment should be supporting in-home broadband adoption and expanding access to WiFi-connected hardware. Having a desktop computer that is connected to broadband internet is essential for learning and honing software or digital content development skills.
The data is compelling. According to 2019 Pew Research Center data, while an estimated 79% of white Americans are estimated to have in-home broadband access, that figure falls by 13 percentage points to 66% for African Americans, who make up an estimated 13.8% of the total US population. 23% of African American adults rely solely on mobile phone data for their internet use, more than twice that of their white counterparts. By expanding broadband internet connections and desktop computing technology into disconnected African American households, society as a whole will benefit from interconnectedness and innovation.
Additionally, new corporate, municipal, and public university initiatives could be utilized to help residents to better understand the inner-workings of their favorite social media platforms and other online platforms from both a technical and business perspective. Such initiatives would build upon the momentum generated by black American social media users that has benefited platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Clubhouse. The Youtube Space program and the Detroit Public Library Teen HYPE Center provide policy makers with some interesting models for future innovation development.
Before the days of MySpace and Facebook, Blackplanet was co-founded by Omar Wasow, a black man, in 2001 and “boasted 20 million members and was the fourth most-visited U.S. social networking site” by 2009. By helping more African American social media influencers to gain a deep understanding of their favorite platforms, they can be empowered to optimize their usage or to invent new social media tools.
Lastly, in order to encourage the adoption of WiFi-connected desktop computers, local libraries, public schools and community colleges should have access to federal E-Rate funds to provide free digital literacy training programs that patrons can later access through shared computer labs and loaned devices. Understanding how the internet works and how to use software applications enables users to create and publish graphic, audio, and video content. In turn, more Americans may understand the ways in which the Internet can be used to develop new professional skills or meaningful hobbies.
The month of February is used to place a special focus on the experiences and contributions of African Americans in U.S. history. It is also important to understand the great talent and creativity that can be unlocked with increased opportunity and publicly-funded access and digital literacy training. While the leading and quickly emerging social media platforms benefit from the disproportionate use of their platforms by African Americans, providing them with critical tools that impact education, economic mobility, health, and more is an important to pay it forward into the next generation of innovators.