What we have, in effect, is not one, but two “digital divides”: Not only do many minority communities have less broadband access than their white counterparts – a problem that the NBP should help address – blacks and Latinos are far less likely than whites to be employed in high-tech fields.


Workplace diversity in the tech industry has lagged behind the rest of the economy, both in the high-tech center of Silicon Valley and nationwide. Nationally, blacks and Latinos represent 27.1 percent of the workforce, but only 12.4 percent of those employed in computer or mathematical occupations. And as the San Jose Mercury News reported in February, “Hispanics and blacks made up a smaller share of the valley's computer workers in 2008 than they did in 2000.”

 

The broadband plan can be used to help remedy this stark disparity, but doing so will require a conscious effort. Fortunately, a workable model exists.

 

That model comes from California – not from the tech industry, but from the state’s Public Utilities Commission, which regulates providers of electricity, natural gas, water, telecommunications, and other vital services. The CPUC’s General Order 156, adopted in 1988 and still strongly supported by legislators, requires the state’s major regulated utility companies to report each year on the percentage of their supplier contracts given to business enterprises owned by women, ethnic minorities, and disabled veterans. The CPUC’s goal is for 15 percent of contracts to go to minority-owned businesses, five percent to women-owned businesses, and 1.5 percent to disabled veteran-owned businesses.

 

These are goals, not quotas, but the combination of specific goals and annual reporting has clearly made a difference. The Greenlining Institute’s most recent Supplier Diversity Report Card found that GO 156 has helped these minority-owned businesses “become an essential component in both the regulated utilities market and the wider economy.” In 2008, many of the state’s largest utilities not only met the PUC’s goals for spending with minority-owned businesses, but actually exceeded them by a significant margin.

 

There is no reason we shouldn’t ask the companies that will be expanding rapidly as a result of the NBP to adopt similar goals, and to report on how they’re doing. Sure, it’s a little more complicated, since we’re dealing with a wide variety of enterprises scattered around the country, but the basic approach is simple: Set a goal for involving underserved communities in the coming broadband boom, then report on how you’re doing.

 

This isn’t an act of charity; it will benefit the whole economy. By 2050, according to the Census Bureau, ethnic minorities will comprise 54 percent of the U.S. population. Capitalizing on that growing diversity will only increase America’s competitive edge in the global marketplace – at the same time as we ensure that the coming explosion of economic opportunities in broadband benefits those corners of America where the Great Recession feels too much like another Great Depression.

Samuel S. Kang is Managing Attorney for the Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, California, www.greenlining.org