Ending Information Redlining

The role of libraries in the next wave of the civil rights movement

November 2, 2020

From the Executive Director by Tracie D. Hall

This past June, in my first address before ALA’s membership as executive director, I outlined three urgencies facing the library and information science field: expanding digital and data access; rapidly diversifying the racial composition of the LIS workforce; and preserving library services by cultivating new stakeholders and partnerships.

In my most recent column, I called out equitable information access as a matter of social justice and questioned how ALA and its collective constituency might work even more intentionally to eradicate information poverty.

I want to pick up this discussion. Let’s look at the pervasive and persistent inequities in information and digital access—and the degree to which they are profoundly raced and classed—as an instance of what I call information redlining.

Redlining is “the practice of arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods, generally because its residents are people of color or are poor,” according to Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Information redlining, as I am asserting it, is the systematic denial of equitable access to information, information services, and information retrieval methods.

Though this definition is my own, in researching other occurrences of the term, I discovered references to scholarship in the mid-1990s by researchers Marvin Anderson, Gary Bass, Patrice McDermott, and Henry Perritt, who forecast the increasing dependence on digital access and formats. Their writings argue that information redlining consists of, but is not limited to, not only how low-income, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), and rural communities access information, but what information is most readily available and discoverable by these groups.

In September, a study from Deutsche Bank called America’s Racial Gap and Big Tech’s Closing Window showed that 76% of the nation’s Black residents and 62% of Latinx residents are slated to be shut out of or underprepared for 86% of US jobs by 2045. They are experiencing a “racial tech gap” that threatens their future economic mobility. The researchers observed that Black and Latinx households are a decade behind white households in broadband access. The study states: “If this digital racial gap is not addressed, in one generation alone, digitization could render the country’s minorities into an unemployment abyss.”

ALA and the nation’s libraries have a primary role to play in closing this gap. In fact, I believe countering information redlining is at the center of the next wave of the civil rights movement that’s already under way.

The Association’s recent release “Built by E-Rate: A Case Study of Two Tribally-Owned Fiber Networks and the Role of Libraries in Making It Happen” illustrates how tribal libraries have used the federal E-Rate program to bring high-speed internet to sovereign nations in New Mexico. It’s just one of many examples of how we can bring awareness to an area that urgently demands investment and advocacy.

The persistence of the coronavirus pandemic continues to expose the degree to which societal inequities are inextricably linked. Information disparities beget education and employment disparities; education and employment disparities beget economic, health, and housing disparities; economic, health, and housing disparities beget justice system and incarceration disparities; and justice system and incarceration disparities circle back to create information disparities.

The last link in this cycle—the relationship between justice system and incarceration inequities and information disparity—will be the focus of my next column. Until then.

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