Narrowing The Digital Divide

To help bridge the "digital divide" (the gap between white people and blacks and Hispanics in access to the Internet), the NAACP and AT&T will partner to create technology centers in 20 cities that will provide computer training and Internet seminars.

"The technological segregation known as the digital divide must be narrowed," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said Monday.

Toward that end, Mfume announced that, through the program, AT&T will provide hardware, software, and on-site support for technology in the centers.

"The centers will be open after the school doors close so parents and children can learn computer usage together," Mfume said. "The old and the young learning together will help reduce that divide."

NAACP spokeswoman Sheila Douglas said that outside of Baltimore, where the NAACP is headquartered, locations of the other 19 sites are yet to be determined. The project will cost approximately $300,000, she said.

Ameritech Corp. and the National Urban League announced last week they will spend $350,000 to build five new Internet community centers in Aurora, Ill., Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. And 3Com Corp. said it will spend $1 million in donated equipment and training in 10 cities to help teach students to be computer network engineers.

Last week, a Commerce Department report, Falling Through the Net, said the disparity on the Internet between whites and black and Hispanic Americans is growing.

The report found about 47 percent of all whites own computers, but fewer than half as many blacks do. About 25.5 percent of Hispanics own computers, but 55 percent of Asian-Americans do. Asian families also are most likely to have Internet access, with 36 percent online.

The report also found 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 as a Hispanic child.

Most troubling for government experts were indications these disparities can't be blamed solely on differences in income. Among families earning $15,000 to $35,000, for example, more than 33 percent of whites owned computers, but only 19 percent of blacks did. That gap has widened nearly 62 percent since 1994 despite plunging computer prices.

Mfume also announced a new national campaign that could involve lawsuits against entertainment industry giants to end the scarcity of black characters on television shows.

The newly formed NAACP Television & Film Industry Diversity Initiative will monitor how well the entertainment industry reflects America's multicultural base.

Aside from calling for congressional and Federal Communications Commission hearings on licensing and ownership of networks, the campaign could initiate lawsuits and boycotts of advertisers, Mfume said.

Using the derth of minorities in upcoming fall shows as a touchstone, Mfume said the NAACP is studying whether or not to file suit against the four major networks for violating the Communications Act of 1934.

The act says the airwaves belong to the public, and Mfume argued there is a "virtual whitewash" in new programming since none of the 26 new shows slated for the upcoming fall season have minorities in featured roles.

"This glaring omission is an outrage and a shameful display by network executives who are either clueless, careless or both," Mfume said.

CBS President Leslie Moonves called the NAACP's concerns "relevant and extremely important." Moonves said in a statement that 11 of the network's 19 entertainment series broadcast this fall would have minority characters "in a primary role." Network spokesman Chris Ender said one new show this fall, Now and Again, a drama, would feature a black actor, Dennis Haysbert.