Racial Capitalism and the “Digital Divide”

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Malik Miah

THE DIALOGUE ON race and nationality in the United States has always been conducted from the standpoint of the dominant racial group—whites.  Not surprisingly, President Clinton’s commission on race produced very little to overcome racism, something that would require facing up to the reality of centuries of white supremacy.

Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, in fact, an accelerating backlash against civil rights has seen many liberals joining conservatives in the illusionary game of pretending that the Constitution is colorblind, and therefore that race and nationality primarily exist as cultural phenomena.

The truth is—as every one knows—that race and nationality have been and remain a central part of U.S. society.  This has been so ever since the first African slaves were brought to the land of the Native Americans in the 1600s.

Why is this important to discuss as we enter the new century and new millennium?  For one thing, the retreat from recognizing the place of race and nationality in American history is intensifying, especially as the age of the personal computers (PCs) and Internet leads many to think racism can be overcome by simply mastering the new technology (“the new power”).  It makes it even more important to understand where racism comes from and how it can be eradicated.

Will the computer revolution change how capitalism works?  Will the class struggle become outdated?  Is it possible under a transformation created by this “new economy” to live in a “colorblind” society where race and nationality no longer matter?

The Realities

The 1999 National Urban League report The State of Black America documents the discrimination that Blacks as a people suffer in U.S. society.  Black unemployment remains at the historic level of twice that for whites, even though the latter is at a single digit.  This margin has been fixed, whether during recessions or during the longest economic expansion ever.

While a Black middle class of an unprecedented size and wealth has arisen since the victory of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, the relative economic statistical gaps (jobs, education, home ownership, health care, life expectancy) are constant.

Because institutional racism is ultimately based on economics—the super-profits corporations and banks make off the special exploitation of colored labor (and of minority communities, through such practices as rent-gouging, higher prices for inferior goods, poor social services, ignoring environmental restrictions, etc.)—it cannot be eliminated without a fundamental restructuring of the state and system.

Simply integrating corporate America and making a few Blacks rich doesn’t alter structural discrimination.  The reversals of busing programs to end school segregation, attacks on affirmative action programs and outlawing use of “race” in employment or education as a factor to combat racism, are all part of taking back concessions forced upon the system after the 1960s civil rights and Black power movements.

Just as the system is based on private property and exploitation of workers for the profit of a few, racism as well is an integral part of the system.

Digital Divide

The more revealing recent report, however, is not the Urban League study.  It is a July 1999 report done by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, concerning the widening digital divide.  It indicates how race in the “new economy” is just as crucial in Silicon Valley, and the other centers of the information highway, as in our larger society.

The new paradigm points to a future where the racial divide is becoming more pronounced, and where technological power is deepening the institutional discrimination suffered by the African-American population.  It also shows that class issues will again assert themselves as they did 200 years ago with the rise of the Industrial Revolution.

The study, “Falling through the net: defining the digital divide,” documents how income and race affect use of computers and the new technology.  “The following examples,” the report summarizes, “highlight the breadth of the digital divide today:

“Those with a college degree are more than eight times as likely to have a computer at home, and nearly sixteen times as likely to have home Internet access, as those with an elementary school education.

“A high-income household in an urban area is more than twenty times as likely as a rural, low-income household to have Internet access.

“A child in a low-income White family is three times as likely to have Internet access as a child in a comparable Black family, and four times as likely to have access as children in a comparable Hispanic household.

“A wealthy household of Asian/Pacific Islander descent is nearly thirteen times as likely to own a computer as a poor Black household and nearly thirty-four times as likely to have Internet access.

“Finally, a child in a dual-parent White household is nearly twice as likely to have Internet access as a child in a White single-parent household, while a child in a dual-parent Black family is almost four times as likely to have access as a child in a single-parent Black household.

“The data reveal that the digital divide—the disparities in access to telephones, personal computers (PCs), and the Internet across certain demographic groups—still exists and in many cases, has widened significantly.  The gap for computers and Internet access has generally grown larger by categories of education, income, and race.”

Since knowledge of computers and the Internet is so pivotal to new industries and productivity for old ones, the fact that Blacks, who are still overwhelmingly working class in social composition, are falling behind is very much related to the fight for equality and power.

Silicon Valley’s Neo-Apartheid

The racial divide will continue to widen if the digital divide is not overcome.  It will not be enough for the traditional and new civil rights groups to focus on issues such as education, housing and jobs in the old way. Our demands must also include wiring the homes of Black families, bringing the new technology into the schools and making sure strong affirmative action programs exist in the Silicon Valleys of the country.

Yet today Silicon Valley uses colored labor in the main for the production of the computers while the engineers and bosses are almost all non-African American.  The color bar is thick.  The class divisions are evident.  And few unions exist.

In an op-ed column in The New York Times (November 28, 1999), novelist Kurt Andersen makes a telling point about the future of cyber-capitalism and the class struggle that you don’t often hear, yet hits the nail on the head.

“The 21st century,” Andersen writes, “will have its Marx. This next great challenger of the governing ideological paradigm, this hypothetical cyber-Marx, is one of our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and he or she could appear in Shandong Province or Cairo or San Bernardino County.  By 2100, give or take a couple of decades, it’s a good bet that free-market, private-property capitalism will be under siege once again, shaken as in 1848 and 1917 and the 1930s by the tremors that the magnificent and ferocious system itself unleashes.”

I would add that the Black or Brown or Red or Yellow worker will be at the head of such a new revolutionary upsurge in the United States, and the world.

In other words, “cyber-capitalism” is still capitalism.  The laws of class struggle don’t disappear.  National oppression doesn’t disappear just because pundits of the ruling class say we live in a “colorblind” society.  “Cyber-capitalism” sharpens the contradictions of industrial capitalism, including the racial divide.

We must therefore begin with the facts of the racism that exists in the world of computers and the Internet.  The power of the 20th century movements for inclusion targeted segregation head-on-something that hasn’t yet happened in the digital world.  The latter is projected as benign to issues of race and class, since merit and brilliance supposedly pay fairly for all peoples.  Never mind the fact that most venture capitalists are white and wealthy, and decide what startups to back.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the three occupations with the fastest job growth from 1996 to 2006 are system analysts, computer engineers and data and computer support specialists.  Jesse Jackson and the NAACP among others are correct to urge more African Americans to learn these jobs—but this is not an option for the vast majority of African Americans attending inferior schools and denied basic entry level jobs.

The divide is not only between whites and Blacks, but between the middle class Blacks and the majority of the community.  The middle class layer sees high tech as a road to power.  In a special December 1999 issue on “Black America in 2020,” Emerge magazine discusses the future of the Black nationality.  The editors observe that “the new millennium will require a new way of thinking in a new world.”

“As the definition of power takes on new dimensions, technologically and otherwise, so, too, will the concepts of race and ethnicity,” write Nat Irvin II and Gina Henderson.  “Part of that is attributable to changing demographics.  In 2020—400 years after Africans were brought to these shores—the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that White Americans will make up 64.3 percent of the population, down from 71.8 percent in 2000; African-Americans will be at 12.9 percent, up slightly from 12.2 percent in 2000; Asian and Pacific Islanders will be at 5.7 percent, from 3.9 percent; American Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts will be hovering at 0.8 percent, from 0.7 percent.

“People of Hispanic origin, who will make up 11.4 percent of the population in 2000, will see their numbers swell to 16.3 percent of the population, making them the country’s largest minority group.”

The Digital Divide and 21st Century Struggle

What do these numbers signify?  For the growing Black middle class and intelligentsia they represent the possibility of African Americans finally joining in the mainstream where race and color are removed as power factors.  Capitalism in the Black community will flourish and new power bases will be forged to compete without ethnic groups in a truly multiethnic United States where whites are no longer dominant.

This is a utopian and idealist dream since, despite their declining percentage, white Americans will still hold economic and political power.  No ruling ethnic group in any society has willingly handed over their power to other social and economic groups and classes.

But there is significance in the changing demographics as far as Blacks and other minorities getting a bigger piece of the pie and asserting themselves politically and economically.  The battle for full equality—the heart of the freedom struggle of African Americans—now includes getting access to the computer world and the Internet in the 21st century.

How will we gain more control of the new technology in the new millennium?  To do so, the lessons of the past century are very relevant.  It will not be by persuasion and promises by the white ruling strata on Wall Street, in Washington or Silicon Valley.  It will be through mobilizing the Black community, the working class and others outside of power to demand structural changes in the system.  Mass action is key.

Is the digital divide a temporary phenomena or is it a reflection of a retreat back to the white domination of the type seen at the run of the last century?

The editors of Emerge, a middle-class Black publication, see it as a challenge.  They think, as do many others, that the Black community is in the best position to integrate into white society without giving up our cultural identity, and in the process gain more power.

But reality is more complex.  The capitalist system is based on who controls the wealth of the country.  It is not Blacks or other people of color, even if more among them benefit from the system today than any time in history.  (There are numerous Black millionaires.)

The ruling class is based on the white ethnic group, which may be made up of various European peoples originally but in American society color is decisive.  White American identity is a reality even for the newest European immigrant.  They join it at once, whereas third or fourth generation Asians are still “hyphenated” Americans and African Americans are always Blacks first, Americans second.  (A broader consideration of race and nationality in the U.S. will be taken up in a subsequent article.)

It’s for this reason that in the next century the digital divide will remain.  Power is and will be maintained within the dominant population—whites—until it is taken by the masses through revolution.  (The state must aggressively enforce laws against de facto discrimination for racism, as opposed to prejudice, to disappear.  The only country that does is Cuba.)

Blacks will continue to demand inclusion and fight to end their institutional second class status—including in the computer and Internet worlds.  The dynamic of such struggles, particularly in periods of the inevitable economic downturn, is a threat to the system.

It is an error to think African Americans can simply get the computer science degrees and the Harvard MBAs, and full equality for the Black nationality will result.  The political power can only be taken.  Business influence will always be limited without political power in Washington.  That’s why Jackson’s Wall Street program can have only limited benefit for the lives of most Black people.

A Democratic and Revolutionary Future

Political power can’t be won by a minority group.  But through alliances with other oppressed peoples and the working class, a revolutionary movement can be built as occurred in revolutionary upheavals (1848, 1917) and the mass struggles of the 1930s.

This is not to say nothing can be done today to influence the new cyber revolution.  I believe the fight to eliminate the digital divide, to improve education and housing and get back affirmative action in hiring, is key to weakening racism and the power of big business.

The future lies in building strong independent Black organizations as well as a broad-based multi-tendency radical organization.  The former must include cultural and revolutionary nationalists, socialists and communists and union militants and church activists.  The formation of the Black Radical Congress in June 1998—with its call for the unity against all forms of oppression, including “class exploitation, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, anti-immigration prejudice and imperialism”—points in the right direction.

The BRC’s Black Freedom Agenda is an excellent democratic document for the movement to fight for in the 21st Century.  The battle against structural racism in the digital “new economy” will be an important arena for our struggle.

Malik Miah is a member of the National Committee of Solidarity and an editor of IndonesiaAlert!  His column, “Race and Politics,” appears regularly in Against the Current.

ATC 84, January-February 2000