The Whiteness of Wi-Fi
- W.E.B. DuBois wrote at a time of breathtaking social change, a time not
unlike our own. The black social critic, activist and writer documented how
African Americans fled the bitter roots of sharecropping in the Jim Crow
South only to find themselves at the margins of the bustling industrial
economy of cities in the North like Philadelphia.
The railroad ushered in dramatic change and Philadelphia, a mercantile and
industrial powerhouse, had taken its place as the center of the U.S.
railroad industry. In books written in the 1890s and early 20th century,
DuBois captured how railroad barons and white labor union leaders forced
African Americans into densely populated brick row homes on sewage-filled
streets on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, away from the commerce and
economic development on the other, whiter side.
Like those turn of the century railroads, the Internet has connected the
entire country and transformed many industries. Were he alive today, DuBois
might similarly conclude that the digital divide has a color line running
As was the case with ownership of and access to railroads in the industrial
era, control over and access to broadband connectivity is defining global,
regional and individual success. In turn, it is shaping whether African
Americans, Latinos and the poor will continue to live in economically
strip-mined neighborhoods like Philadelphia's Kensington.
Last year, city leaders announced a program to provide universal access to
Wi-Fi, wireless technology that provides individuals and organizations with
Internet connectivity. The city's Chief Information Officer, Diana Neff,
proposed a strategy to "create a digital infrastructure for open-air
Internet access and to help citizens, businesses, schools, and community
organizations make effective use of wireless technology to achieve their
But free to low-cost Wi-Fi access represents a threat to big telecoms and
cable providers that reap billions by charging for Internet access while
tapping into the publicly-owned electronic radio spectrum that facilitates
Like the railroad barons of DuBois' time, the CEOs and lobbyists of telecom
and cable giants worked against the interest of Philadelphia's majority.
Claiming unfair competition, representatives of big business lobbied
Pennsylvania legislators to outlaw free municipal Wi-Fi for the 75 percent
of Philadelphia's poor who Neff estimates have no access to the Internet.
Media reform advocates and local officials defeated those efforts earlier
this year in a victory that has become a benchmark for activists in other
Like many in the media reform movement, DuBois might see the strategic
import of securing universal Wi-Fi access in the City of Brotherly Love.
Yet, unlike the members of the mostly white media reform movement (and
unlike most U.S. "progressives"), he would work and live in Kensington or
other poor, unwired neighborhoods and would organize there--just as he did
when he helped establish the NAACP. Living and organizing among the poor
informed his passion to fight what he called "the evil which a privileged
few may exercise over the majority."
That such a spirit--and practice--is lacking in the media reform and larger
progressive community bodes ill for political work in the United States. The
media reform movement must adopt not just DuBois' passion for issues like
race, but his methods as well.
For now, a monochromatic color spectrum (as in various shades of white)
divides the movement from people like Saskia Fischer, an organizer with the
United Church of Christ's Media Empowerment Project. Consider her the
exception to what some call the "unbearable whiteness of media reform."
Fischer has heeded DuBois' call to attack the color line by engaging working
people in what she and others prefer to call the "media justice movement."
The term "includes people of color--and is more radical," says Fischer.
Fischer, herself a young Indian and Dutch immigrant, works with black,
Latino, Arab, immigrant and other communities by linking licensing of the
public spectrum, computer and internet access and other media issues to
local concerns like education and jobs.
As effective as the organizing of media reform groups like The Center for
Digital Democracy, the Media Access Project and Free Press is, the groups
are increasingly recognizing the need to cross the color line in a country
where most major cities are, like Philadelphia, "majority minority" cities.
Organizing in and with non-white, working class communities will add
vitality and urgency--and a large base.
Failure to broaden the movement comes at a time when the right is
reengineering itself to be more inclusive. "Media justice issues are life
and death issues for our communities," says Fischer. Learning to navigate
the digital divide's color line may be similarly fateful for the progressive
Roberto Lovato is a 2003 George Washington Williams fellow and a writer with
Pacific News Service.
Tracey deMorsella, Managing Producer
Convergence Media, Inc.
Home of The Multicultural Advantage
E-mail: tdemorsella @...
No virus found in this outgoing message.
Checked by AVG Anti-Virus.
Version: 7.0.338 / Virus Database: 267.10.14/79 - Release Date: 8/22/2005