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Civil Rights in Communications – A Movement Still in Motion

By Jacqueline Clary
Broadband & Social Justice

A common question civil rights practitioners receive is: “Why?” In an era where a Supreme Court Justice is comfortable talking about the continuation of the Voting Rights Act as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement” and mainstream America is eager to chalk up racial discrimination as a relic belonging to our misguided ancestors, it’s no wonder this question persists.


But regardless of the rhetoric of the misinformed, civil rights, particularly in media and telecommunications, do matter.

Despite the nation’s tenuous grip on this delusion of a post-racial utopia, the facts remain. The sizable racial wealth gap continues to rise, while diverse ownership and participation decreases in the traditional and the broadband enabled/high tech communications sector, an industry that touches on one-sixth of our economy.

These disparities illustrate that diversity is a crucial policy goal and that access, adoption, and informed use (e.g. digital literacy) of broadband technology is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Smart businesses are starting to realize the importance of having a diverse pool of skilled workers and creators to solve today’s challenges before they become tomorrow’s problems. These organizations are providing an avenue to diversify Silicon Valley and broadband enabled industries.

Setting aside the ongoing practical ramifications of laws, regulations, and industries that were built in a society rooted in discrimination, diversity matters because America prides itself on innovative prowess, and you cannot predict where the next big invention will come from.

November 29, 1887, was a triumph celebrating foresight and innovation. The United States Patent Office issued Patent No. 373, 915 for the Induction Telegraph System to Granville T. Woods. If you enjoy using your mobile phone, take a moment to say thanks for this invention, which paved the way for modern wireless technology. Granville Woods started his career with little formal education, gaining hands on knowledge through employment and apprenticeships that provided the foundation to foster his creative brilliance and allow him to invent the groundwork for of our current transit and communications infrastructure.

In 1967, Yvonne Brill, a pioneering woman rocket scientist and a dedicated wife and mother who was prohibited from participating in the engineering program (and instead studied math and chemistry) at the University of Manitoba, invented the industry standard to keep communications satellites in place.

Now, organizations are trying to encourage more diverse participation in the digital age.

Access. Adoption. Digital Literacy. Opportunity. Innovation.

Public, private, and nonprofit initiatives such as Connect2Compete are addressing the barriers to broadband adoption to ensure that everyone has the ability to connect online. Other organizations, including CodeNow, are teaching traditionally underrepresented communities the skills to harness digital power to code and create. To connect startups to funding opportunities, diverse incubator programs, such as the NewME Accelerator Program, provide minority businesses access to mentors, high profile networks, capital, and a platform to showcase their products.

Arming individuals with the tools and skills to enable them to use technology to solve problems yields opportunities for individual, community, and societal advancement. It is our duty to the future of this nation to ensure that these tools and skills are available to everyone.

Jacqueline Clary is the John W. Jones Fellow at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. In this position, she focuses on a variety of policy issues to advance minority participation in the media and telecommunications industries. Ms. Clary earned her B.A. from John Carroll University, her J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law, and is a member of the New York State Bar.

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