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The Whiteness of Wi-Fi

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  • Tracey de Morsella (formerly Tracey L. M
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 25, 2005
      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
      through it.

      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
      wireless communications.

      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
      movement itself.

      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
      Phone: 215-849-0946
      E-mail: tdemorsella @...
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