Information age poses hurdle, NAACP told Telecommunications is key to leaping it, FCC chairman says

July 14, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Unless the racial divide in telecommunications access is overcome, blacks face being further boxed out of economic opportunities in modern technology, the Federal Communications Commission chairman told the 89th annual convention of the NAACP here yesterday.

"The civil rights challenge for the next century is the make sure that African-Americans -- and all Americans -- share in the benefits of the information age," William E. Kennard said, noting that two in 10 blacks do not have telephones in their homes and even fewer have computers.

Among whites, 95 percent have phones at home, he said, and white students are three times more likely to have home computers and twice as likely to have school computers than their black counterparts.

"In order to fulfill the promise of equality in education for all Americans -- the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education -- we've got to make sure every child in America has the tools to compete and win in this new economy," he said.

Kennard spoke alongside media mogul Ted Turner and civil rights veteran Percy Sutton to about 300 at a workshop on telecommunications access and ownership.

The session came on the third day of the six-day gathering of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Also yesterday, organization leaders highlighted legislative priorities -- including plans to battle an anti-affirmative action initiative in Washington state -- and discussed workplace discrimination.

In his address, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume attacked the Supreme Court for its anti-affirmative action decisions and a lack of minority law clerks. And buttressing the NAACP's recent report cards on Congress and hotels, Mfume urged black RTC Americans to be more active in voter drives and to spend their money on companies that employ blacks, to "boycott those who boycott you."

A recent addition to the Baltimore-based group's convention schedule, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew M. Cuomo will speak this morning on fair-housing issues.

Yesterday, Kennard said the racial disparity in access to telephones is an issue of economic opportunity, discrimination and, for those in rural areas, sheer distance from telephone lines.

"Some call this red-lining," he said in a post-workshop telephone interview, referring to a term historically used to describe race-based discrimination in housing loans by some banks. "I think this is more complex than that."

Those without telephones have less access to jobs and emergency medical care -- things many consider basic to life in the 20th century, he said.

Victoria Davis, a St. Paul, Minn., real estate agent who attended the workshop, said she sees evidence of the gap in access to telephones in her work. "I am constantly having problems getting through to clients who have lower incomes," she said. "In our community, that's the real world. It's something we need to hear more about."

Speaking on issues of media ownership, Turner -- who owns CNN, TBS and TNT -- acknowledged that media mergers have made it nearly impossible for small communications companies to compete in the cable TV market. He urged small business owners to pursue opportunities in more open communications arenas such as the Internet.

"It's almost a waste of time to look at the established industries," Turner said. "An entrepreneur couldn't be successful there."

Sutton, who heads African Continental Telecommunications, a company seeking to provide wireless phone access to African nations, said access to telecommunications "is access to opportunity."

In Africa, barely 3 percent of residents and businesses have telephone access, he said. "I look at that figure, and I see 97 percent opportunity," Sutton said.

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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