Digital Can Be The Great Equalizer
By Raj De Datta
In this month of unprecedented protests following the murder of George Floyd, we are all channeling anger into introspection. Lets start here – we at Bloomreach stand with the protesters fighting for racial equity. For me, the murder of George Floyd betrays the ideals of the America I immigrated to and love. This is the place where hard work and lofty dreams come true.
Of course, I’ve been aware of the dark underbelly of American racism since I came to the US for college – when, on my first day in my dorm room at Princeton University, I saw a confederate flag hanging on the wall. My roommate, who I would go on to build a great relationship with, proceeded to ask me whether I would be offended? To be honest, I was confused – I wasn’t sure if he thought I was black or whether he was asking whether I cared about the historical oppression of African Americans in the country versus what he viewed as his core Southern identity.
It has been 28 years since I came to the US and not enough has changed. But I am filled with more hope than ever before. It starts with the generational change and the multi-cultural, multi-racial movement we are seeing in our streets to drive change. But to fight systemic racism, we need systemic solutions and we have yet to see them from our government. Fortunately, if the pandemic has taught us one thing – it is that another great systemic solution is on the way. It is not a substitute for reform in public policy, but it can be a great accelerator.
Digital can be the great equalizer.
We know that the black unemployment rate in America is twice that of the white unemployment rate. We know that wealth held by white families is about 20x that of black families. We know that incarceration rates, education and representation present huge disparities. But why does this happen?
It starts with education, which in the US is fundamentally driven by a broken public school system driven by local property taxes and a ridiculously costly college system that structurally excludes poorer communities of color. Good news, digital, is teaching us that great education is accessible digitally. Tools like Khan Academy, which both of my children actively use, offer a robust and free education. My son now attends Laurel Springs, a private online school that costs less than 1/10th that of high quality private schools – and it is the #7 ranked online school in the country – accessible anywhere, with great education. As we are seeing from both primary and college education – there are lots of social benefits of kids being together in their formative years but online education can deliver tremendous academic success. Promoting digital education, and complementing it with physical gatherings should be the #1 priority of any group fighting to enable equality of opportunity.
Health care is another area of massive disparity. As we have seen from the recent Coronavirus cases, black and brown families are disproportionately impacted and likely to live in areas with poorer health care facilities. Digital can change all of that. In speaking with digital health care executives at organizations like Kaiser Permanente, we have seen a 15x increase in telemedicine over this quarantine period. Sure, not all ailments are best treated digitally – but it sure is a heck of a lot better to see a great doctor online than a poor or no doctor in person. Digital healthcare has the potential to be a game changer for equal opportunity and has been notably missing from the debates over private vs. public healthcare in this country.
What about jobs? At Bloomreach we are rapidly moving to a “work from anywhere” environment. Of course, that presents significant benefits in terms of access to talent and the avoidance of brutally long commutes in the places we have offices – the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, Boston, London, Amsterdam and Bangalore. But the availability of digital tools and an increasing flexibility with work from anywhere will also open up tremendous access for employees who may have great skills but simply don’t have the economic means to live in expensive locations like San Francisco and London. If we do this right, we can enable black and brown communities who may lack the wealth or family circumstances to move, but have all the ambition and skills, to still work at the best paying jobs. If we are recruiting anywhere, personal networks are less likely to play a role, reducing the probability of bias. Yet another digital equalizer.
Finally, we come to commerce. Why might the explosion of eCommerce accelerate equality of opportunity? Where you live and what you’re exposed to has historically had a lot to do with what you can buy. And what you can buy is not just important for your current consumption, it represents aspirations of what you might one day be able to buy. Live in the poorest areas of the country and its pretty unlikely you’ll find the healthy organic food or even the apparel you want to buy – increasingly so as we see retail stores shutdown. Digital commerce can change that – consumer dollars can purchase anything from anywhere.
We shouldn’t take all of this for granted. Digital is not by itself a panacea. Computer access and Internet bandwidth are not equally available. It will not eliminate institutional racism or change hearts and minds or replace the kind of structural change that only governments and individuals can make. But it can provide access to things that were once only for the privileged.
Let's make digital the great equalizer.