By Mike McGrath
Mobile Technology, African-Americans and Civic Engagement
The other day it was raining, I was getting out of my car. I had my keys in one hand and the cell phones rings. I grapple for the slippery, bullet-shaped metallic object (obviously not a smart phone) and it squirts out of my hand like a banana from a peel, rockets into the air and swan dives into the pavement, hitting the concrete curb with a sickening thud and breaking into three parts, the phone, the back and the battery skittering in different directions.
This was not an actual event, by the way, but a dramatization combining several real cell phone mishaps in one dramatic scenario to illustrate a point: I’m not a particular fan when it comes to cell phones. But as a civic engagement industry professional, I can’t afford to indulge my inner techno-fogey, so reluctantly I’m beginning to warm to the potential of mobile technology.
Consider this intriguing factoid from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: about 26 percent of Americans used their cell phones to learn about or participate in the 2010 midterm elections. By far, the highest numbers were among African-Americans, about 36 percent.
Then consider this equally intriguing (and perhaps related?) factoid: in what was otherwise a dismal turnout among youthful voters in 2010 there was one bright spot. The African-American voter turnout was higher than other groups of 18-29 year-olds, about 27.5 percent, compared to 24.9 percent of whites and 17.6 percent of Latinos.
Cell phones, in fact, may be the great exception to the “digital divide” between historically under-served or disaffected groups and more affluent Americans. African-Americans lag way behind white American when it comes to personal household wealth but are actually more likely to have cell phones and to use them for Internet access.
“I think there is great power in these tools,” says Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org. “When you account for cell phone usage, for instance, there is literally no digital divide between black folks and other communities. The ways in which black folks are using cell phone technology and getting on the Internet to engage in participation opportunities was really evident during these last two elections cycles. A lot of that was because they were being engaged through cell phones and through technology around voting.”
The online organizing group formed after Hurricane Katrina when African-Americans and many others were outraged by the failure of government at all levels to come to the aid of low income residents of New Orleans. Members of ColorOfChange.org have united behind a simple pledge: to do all they can to make sure all Americans are represented, served, and protected, regardless of race or class.
“We know that young people are not living in places where they are going to get their doors knocked on,” says Robinson. “They’re not necessarily living at permanent addresses. You aren’t reaching them by calling their homes.”
Robinson is convinced, as well, that using mobile technology sets up a different kind of communication. “It’s very different in terms of how people provide information back and forth,” he explains. “You can provide everything from locations to maps via cell phones to give people the tools to be able to quickly figure out, not just whether people are registered, but where they actually vote, what their polling location was, and they can report problems they may have at the polls.”
We all know how important new media and technology were in the dramatic events that unfolded last spring in the Middle East. But here in the U.S. the potential for civic change through mobile technology is only beginning to show.
“I was on a subway platform in New York City right before the (2008) election and I saw what appeared to be high school watching the Yes We Can! video on their phones. They were having an experience around participation that has nothing to do with adults, that has nothing to do with a political party, really. They were having an experience around how to participate that was completely rooted in where we have gone with technology.”