The digital divide: minorities left behind

July 21, 1999|By Garland L. Thompson and Tyrone Taborn

A different Al Gore showed up early this month at Unity 99, the largest gathering of minority journalists in the United States. Taking center stage before 6,000 people in Seattle, a looser Mr. Gore was no longer a campaign in search of a theme, but rather a man with something to say.

What Mr. Gore has to say is pretty important to those who want to continue watching stock portfolios grow and building these mini-mansions in Baltimore County: America's economic joy ride is about to come to a halt unless we do something about the growing digital divide.

Mr. Gore has cast himself as the modern-day Paul Revere on this matter, just as a federal survey was released showing that minorities are increasingly getting access to computers and the Internet. Nevertheless, the racial divide is dramatic, with blacks and Hispanics less than half as likely as whites to surf the Interet from home, work or school.

The only bright spot was at the very top of the earnings scale: Black families with income of at least $75,000 a year have computer use and Internet access closer to that of whites, according to the Department of Commerce study.

Mr. Gore rightly points out that America will have a tough time trying to keep its grasp on more than one-third of the world's capital if so many minorities aren't prepared for high-tech jobs.

Unfilled jobs

We are already feeling the sting. Last year, more than 200,000 information technology jobs went begging, according to the Information Technology Association of America, a computer industry trade group. Some 25,000 such jobs went unfilled in Maryland.

Only one in three jobs in California's Silicon Valley requires technology skills. Companies there are in need of workers to fill managerial, customer-service and support staff positions as well as posts in research and development labs.

The shortage of people who can simply write, read and do basic math is so bad that the Air Force now questions whether it needs to drop the high-school diploma requirement to meet its recruitment goals.

All of this is happening because America is growing older and because those entering the work force in large numbers today are the very people we have turned our collective backs on before.

It's good that someone like Mr. Gore has now embraced this issue as a major campaign theme. But he's not the first to recognize this problem.

For several decades, minority scholars such as Morgan State University's engineering dean, Eugene DeLoatch, have been sounding the alarm to a nation that couldn't seem to hear anything but the bells on Wall Street.

Mr. Gore sees a technological revolution coming. The Chinese would love to own our nuclear might, the Japanese are dedicated to becoming leaders in the microbiology and applied biotech fields the way they have in electronics, automobile manufacturing and steel making. There are a couple of European countries that would love to send Boeing and its 100,000 workers back to building twin-engine seaplanes.

The nation's interest

America has got to come to terms with its minority population. Diversity in hiring and equality in education is no longer a luxury, but a matter of self-preservation.

The children who are going to fly those Tomcats and Hornets off the decks of tomorrow's aircraft carriers and find treatments for the old-age illnesses that will hit all of us are at Dunbar High School today.

We would like to believe that before launching a missile they know north from south, and that before they plug in our IVs, they know how to find a vein with a needle.

America's ability to remain the major economic and military power is absolutely intertwined with the success we have in bringing blacks and Hispanics into the information revolution.

If we fail the youths of color throughout America, we shouldn't be surprised when other flags replace the old stars and stripes at the top of the world.

Garland L. Thompson, a former Sun editorial writer, is editor-at-large of two magazines published by Career Communications Group Inc. in Baltimore. Tyrone Taborn is publisher and editor of those magazines.

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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