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  • Writer's picturejonathanmrhodes

Race, Redlining and the Digital Divide

As Affordable Connectivity Plan comes to an end, what’s next for digital equity? Jonathan Rhodes, Founder of the Rhodes Law Firm discusses his work to bridge the digital divide in New Orleans.


In the grip of a global pandemic, we suddenly found ourselves in a world where access to connectivity could mean the difference between life and death. However, as many embraced this new world of Zoom school, remote work and, thankfully, equity for essential workers, others found themselves disconnected by old world racist policies. The pandemic exposed a "digital divide" between the vast majority of affluent White communities with access to highspeed internet, and communities of color that lack access to reliable, affordable broadband. The Rhodes Law Firm founded by Jonathan Rhodes in New Orleans to help bridge the divide nationally and serves as a leader in technology, networking and communications to provide Internet for All and support the Internet of Everything.


Today's "digital divide" is not just analogous to the discriminatory housing policies of the past referred to as “redlining”, it is a direct result of those racist practices. Redlining started in the 1930s, when racially motivated banks sought to draw black neighborhoods out of home ownership opportunities. Recent research out of the University of Florida and published by Brown University has confirmed the link between racist housing policies of the past, and digital equity today. Now recognized as an overt and harmful practice of racial discrimination, redlining in housing is illegal and has created an unjust gap in generational wealth for millions of black families.


However, nearly 100 years later, we still find ourselves with a new incarnation of an old, racist practice. We recognized these issues in a post last year, and identified some strategies and solutions to build more equitable and connected communities. In fact, The Rhodes Law Firm was founded with social justice at its core, and you can read some of our recent civil rights cases here and here.  


In 2020, I sought improve the lives of people in communities around them by developing programs for affordable internet. He knew that too many people in New Orleans, and in communities across the country, did not have access to reliable, affordable connectivity. At the time, the vast majority of people in White communities had access to highspeed internet, so remote school, work and information were no problem. On the other hand, there were communities of color where more than 50% of residents lacked access. Putting the historic housing redline maps next to current digital equity maps in New Orleans paints a startling picture of this ongoing disparity in our communities. 


But I also saw that the problem was not just local to New Orleans. Across America, racism in housing policy and community development has continued to impact equity in connectivity. This awareness was frustrating because I knew the technology and solutions currently existed to bring high speed broadband to those in need.


However, in a dramatic and unfortunate twist, before these innovations could take shape, I would be challenged by some of the most powerful interests in the market—the incumbent cable providers and regulatory politicians. Falsely accused by these powerful interest, and ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, I am proud to have pushed the envelope for innovation and positive change. So, why is it that the powerful companies and their politicians perpetuate the racist policies of the past? Who stands to gain from the digital divide.


In terms of redlining, it was the banks that sought to protect their interests by keeping black families out of the housing market. Similarly, today it is incumbent cable companies that seek to protect their dying industry. Not only have incumbent companies failed to build out broadband infrastructure in communities of color, they have also sought to prevent other companies from doing so. This dual track of disinvestment and discouraging competition has so far allowed incumbents to protect their market dominance, although at the expense of our communities.


The Community Tech Network has some great commentary and studies on the causes and results of these decades of discrimination and disinvestment. It seems from the data, and in our communities, the incumbents seek to perpetuate segregation over Smart Cities. This makes incumbents dinosaurs, doing what they can to hold off the disrupters.


As a disruptive entrepreneur, I am one of those seeking to challenge the status quo with better technology, better service and more affordable prices for the communities that need it most. But there is a playbook the incumbent companies use to kill these innovations.


In a future post, I’ll offer commentary on how cable companies and politicians worked together to kill competition and preserve the status quo. These lessons learned will help disrupters find a path forward in working with cities in the future. Stay tuned and join our team!


Jonathan Rhodes is passionate about bringing Internet to All and serves as a thought leader, partner and advisor to technology companies building the Internet of Everything. Follow the commentary here and on social.

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