It's a great honor for me to be here today to speak to the Urban League. I have been looking forward to speaking to you for a long time. I have admired the work of this organization for as long as I can remember. And your current president, Hugh Price, is an inspiration to me. He is one of the most insightful leaders in our country.
Last night, Hugh Price once again demonstrated his visionary leadership by calling upon this organization and its affiliates to strongly endorse the FCC's program to bring advanced technology to America's schools and libraries.
Hugh continues in the tradition of many great leaders of the Urban League, people like Whitney Young, the strong charismatic leader during the turbulent days of the civil rights movement and Vernon Jordan, who, while he was president of the Urban League, created many opportunities for our community and who remains on the front lines helping a generation of African Americans find successful careers. I count myself as one of them.
And there's John Jacobs who, when President Reagan announced that America had magically become a color blind society, showed us that the people who held that view were just plain blind. In fact, I like Vice President Gore's response to this argument. He says that "those who say we have a color-blind society . . . use their color-blind the way duck hunters use a duck blind. They hide behind it and hope the ducks won't notice." Well, we notice.
Today I'd like to talk about two visions of America's future. But I'd like to start by talking about two children.
The first is Melissa. She's a junior in high school. She's at the top of her class.
She has a personal computer at home connected to the Internet, and computers in her classrooms at school. When she needs an encyclopedia she uses her Encarta CD-Rom. When she wants to know about, say, Philadelphia, she just goes on the Internet. When she hands in a report in school, it not only is good -- it looks good, with italics and bold subheadings and graphics in four colors.
When Melissa graduates from high school, she will be prepared for college. When she graduates from college, she will be able to write her own ticket.
Maurice lives a few miles away. He's a junior at a different high school. Maurice's family doesn't have a personal computer. His classroom at school isn't connected to the Internet. The library in Maurice's school has one Internet connection for 2,000 students. The public library in Maurice's neighborhood isn't open after dark.
Maurice won't go to college. When he enters the job market, he will see that the best jobs demand computer skills. He won't have them. His ticket will afford him far fewer choices.
There are millions of kids like Maurice and Melissa in America today.
They stand on opposite sides of a digital divide.
It's a divide between those who have access to modern information technology, and those who don't.
It's a divide between the well-to-do and the poor, the well-educated and those who did not finish high school.
And the digital divide is also a racial divide, because African Americans and Hispanics stand on the wrong side of the divide -- in all income groups.
Today, America stands at a crossroads. Will we create a 21st century in which America remains so divided? Will we create an America in which Maurice and Melissa stare at each other across an unbridgeable gap between those with opportunity and those without it?
Or will we build a bridge across that digital divide?
As Martin Luther King once put it, will we "live together as brothers or perish together as fools?"
Of course, the National Urban League has charted the digital divide. You know about it. You understand its importance. And you are working with me to close it. I am here to thank you for your support, and to talk with you about how we can work as partners to make sure that the communications revolution is a revolution that serves to unite America, not divide America.
Because, while I believe that government has an essential role to play in working to bridge the digital divide, we can't do it alone. It will take government working with private industry, working with the Urban League and other enlightened organizations.
In a very real sense, there's no more appropriate place to talk about the role of technology in society than in Philadelphia.
At the turn of the century, Philadelphia was one of the greatest manufacturing cities in the world. It had the highest percentage of home ownership in the country. Just drive through the city and you'll see the monuments to the manufacturing age: huge factories that were the marvel of the time. And all around them, are block upon block of row houses built for an affluent blue collar working class.
But in the middle of this century, America's infrastructure and investment changed. The interstate highway systems, railroads, and airplanes all meant that centers of manufacturing and commerce could be located outside of center city areas. Manufacturing no longer needed to be located in the center city.
As manufacturing moved out, Philadelphia and othercities began losing their job base. Mayor Rendell puts it this way: a city that loses its job base is like a house with its foundation getting washed away. It loses its tax base -- the foundation from which everything else flows, from schools to cops.
Today, we see a new infrastructure being built that offers new hope. It is an information infrastructure of digital communications and computers, carried by wire, cable, satellite, and microwaves -- and it is recasting our world.
Telecommunications represents 14% of our gross national product. Eight out of every ten new jobs are in information-intensive sectors of the economy. The United States will need 1.3 million new workers in information technology over the next eight years. We're going to need 95,000 new computer scientists, analysts, and programmers each year.
Some say we should import these skills from outside the country. I say let's train the people who are already here.
And these statistics don't even begin to tell the story of how communications and computers are changing how we live. We're going to buy cars over the Internet. We're going to be diagnosed by doctors using Internet connections. Artists will display paintings by having viewers log on to their Web Page.
Cities are benefitting from this information revolution and the economic growth it produces.
The recent "State of the Cities" report published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development concludes that, cities, driven by our robust national economy, are fiscally and economically the strongest they've been in a decade.
Yet despite these gains, HUD found that cities still face the triple threat of concentrated poverty, shrinking populations, and middle class flight that began two decades ago.
The key to reducing urban poverty and attracting and keeping middle class families, the report said, was to close opportunity gaps in jobs, education and housing.
The telecommunications revolution can help cities close these opportunity gaps.
After all, cities are already wired for advanced communication, and are full of talented people, centers for business, ideas and entertainment.
It's no accident that corridors of our high technology economy, such as Route 128 in Boston, Silicon Valley, and Northern Virginia, all sprang up near large metropolitan areas.
The land in these outlying areas was cheap, but its proximity to cities gave it large potential value.
Some people look at these high-tech corridors and see how far away they are from central cities. I look at them and see how close they are. There's no reason why a child in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood shouldn't benefit from the high-tech corridor that exists 15 miles from where she goes to school and lives.
We can and we must do more to bridge this distance, particularly from central cities to the centers of our information economy -- where jobs and opportunity abound.
And that's our challenge. Because, as we know from the stories of Melissa and Maurice, this distance is not one just of geography, but of education level, access to technology, and income.
You know, I love that old Abbott and Costello routine where Abbott says, "Lou, if you had fifty dollars in one pocket and a hundred dollars in the other, what would you have?"
Costello says, "Somebody else's pants."
We've always tried to have an education system for everyone -- not just those with deep pockets. But it now appears that access to advanced communications is depending more and more on having deep pockets.
That's the possibility raised by a new study released last week by my friend Larry Irving, the Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the Commerce Department. He uses Census data to document the growing information disparity within our society.
Consider the following data:
96% of white households have basic telephone service while only 86% of black and Hispanic households do. In households with annual incomes below $15,000 per year, whites have a 90% telephone penetration rate. Blacks? 76%.
What about home computers? There's about a 21% gap in PC ownership between white and black households -- a gap that's increasing. If you look at a typical sixth grade -- say with a hundred kids, three times as many white kids will be hooked up to the Internet at home as black or Hispanic kids. And only 5% of minority classrooms are hooked up to the Internet.
Well, maybe the gap is erased among wealthier families.
Somewhat. But even in households with annual incomes above $75,000, whites are 12% more likely to have a personal computer than blacks.
Why do African Americans and Hispanics have lower telephone subscribership at all income levels? Why do we have lower PC ownership at all levels of income?
These are important questions. And that's why I'm announcing today that, beginning this fall, the FCC will be holding public hearings to examine access to communications technology in communities throughout the United States.
We're going to rural Appalachia, we're going to American Indian communities in the Southwest, and we're going to inner cities -- around the country. And we're going to get the facts. We're going to learn who is being helped and who's being left behind. We're going to pose some hard questions to the telecommunications industry. And, with the help of the National Urban League, we're going to learn what we can do to bridge the digital divide.
These hearings will give us information with which to better understand access to communications technology in America today.
Does this gap in access to technology matter? You bet it does. How can you look for a job without a phone? How can an employer call you for an interview? How can you demonstrate that you have the skills to compete if you don't know which side of a diskette goes in first?
The digital divide threatens to separate us when we most need to be brought together.
The question is, how do we make sure all Americans can get onto the on-ramp of the Information Highway?
The answer is universal access.
Universal access to telephone service has been the hallmark of our nation's communications system for over sixty years. As part of the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress expanded the concept of universal service to include not just ubiquitous voice telephone service, but also advanced telecommunications and information services, like the Internet, in all public and private schools, classrooms and libraries. Universal service is not just a telephone to every home-- it is, and it should be, universal access to advanced services from every community. And universal access to advanced telecommunications is what we should be seeking for our children.
In implementing this legislation, the FCC created a mechanism for bringing technology to the nation's schools, libraries and rural health clinics, called the e-rate.
Does this work?
It sure works in Brownsville, Texas, where 57% of the population lives below the poverty level. The Brownsville library has 10 public workstations with high-speed access; 19 more will be added in the next two months. About 11,000 books are checked out but 21,000 people visit the library each month -- 75% to use the Internet. As Brownsville's library director, Joe Garcia, told USA Today, "We have whole families coming in here who say they'll never be able to afford a computer."
It shouldn't be a surprise that government can play a role in eliminating the digital divide.
After all, the information revolution was started by public leadership and investment. Government scientists invented the Internet, which was the catalyst for Silicon Valley and other high tech corridors around the country.
Despite the lessons this history teaches us -- despite examples like Brownsville -- the e-rate initiative is under attack. Today, in Congress there is pending legislation to kill it.
Can we really tolerate leaving our poorest communities behind, stranding poor kids in our most distressed inner city and rural areas in a technological desert? In this era of retrenchment in affirmative action, where the number of African Americans and Hispanics at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas is the lowest in decades, can we really tolerate going down a path where the information haves become have-mores, while the information have-nots become have-nones?
I say, no.
We can't do that. We must continue to help open the doors of opportunity to these kids -- to help them help themselves.
And just as I began with an example of Philadelphia's decline, let me give some examples of why it is coming back.
Consider LibertyNet, a project right here in Philadelphia that provides computers for residents in the city's Empowerment Zone. It's helped teenagers find jobs and elderly Philadelphians learn to read -- and I applaud LibertyNet's Bob Lemming and Laura Weinbaum who are here with us today.
And consider MercerNet, an innovative public/private partnership of Comcast Cable Communications and a fourteen member educational consortium. MercerNet allows students in inner city Trenton to learn from the very same instructors as students in nearby Princeton.
That's the kind of partnership that forges closer ties between communities -- that closes the gap -- that can bridge the digital divide -- and that can ensure opportunity for all of our citizens.
Can we succeed? Of course we can.
And I'm an optimist, partly because I remember the stories my family tells about the way they faced a different divide.
When my father was a boy, the schools were segregated in his town. But when he was five years old, his parents sent him off to the school closest to their home -- which was the white school.
The principal told him, "You can't go to this school," and sent him home. Then the principal called my grandmother and told her that my father would have to go to the
segregated school miles away.
Well, the next day my grandparents dressed my father up again, and sent him off to the white school. The principal sent him home again.
My grandparents told my father, "This is your neighborhood. This is your school. That's where you should go." And sent him back again. It was tough on my father.
But his parents wouldn't have it any other way. They knew that they had to equip my father with the tools that he would need to realize his full potential.
So they kept sending him back to that school until the school system finally relented and let him go to his neighborhood school.
My father grew up and fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming an architect. He devoted his career to rebuilding communities devastated by riots and urban decay. He loved to design churches and community centers and housing projects.
And so, to those who want America to fulfill the true promise of equality, to those who want all of America's children -- of all colors -- to share in the promise of the American dream, to those who want people with disabilities to be full participants in the mainstream of our society . . . I say this: let us be the architects of our future. Let us use the tools of the Information Age to create communities.
And let us work together, school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, to build one America.
Let us make sure that the vision of America that comes true is one in which we live together as brothers and sisters.
And let us make sure that the Maurices and Melissas whose future now looks so different, face one future, equally bright, equally promising and equally capable of realizing the American dream.