Race, Ethnicity, and Communications Policy Debates: Making the Case for Critical Race Frameworks in Communications Policy

Matthew Bui

Rachel Moran

In July 2014, the Huffington Post ran an article entitled, “Why is the NAACP Siding with Verizon over Net Neutrality?”  In the article, author Gerry Smith reported that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and several other high-profile, civil-rights groups had become important “flashpoints” in the debate over net neutrality, and that division within the activist community constituted a significant debate within the net neutrality movement. Groups like Color for Change and the Center for Media Justice argued in favor of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) intervention to secure net neutrality in an effort to ensure that broadband Internet access service providers could not discriminate against minority-produced content. In contrast, the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Multicultural, Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) positioned themselves against mandated net neutrality, arguing that opposition was in the best interest of marginalized populations.

The stances of organizations such as the NAACP and MMTC came under fire due to the substantial donations that these groups received from telecommunications corporations. Indeed, analysis conducted by the Center for Public Integrity showed that, between 2009 and 2011, MMTC received at least $725,000 in donations and sponsorship from net neutrality opponents including Verizon and Time Warner. In response, MMTC’s President David Honig contended that the group had received funding from groups on both sides of the debate and that he was “saddened” by the implication that their support had been “bought.” Moreover, since late 2017 the NAACP has reversed its stance toward net neutrality and has denounced the FCC’s recent reversals of net neutrality regulation.

Nonetheless, these high-profile cases of civil rights groups taking active, and differing, stances on net neutrality highlights their increasing involvement in the communications policy sphere, and the complex interrelations between corporations, civil rights groups, and (digital) communications policy issues.  Further, with the re-opening and abrupt closing of the net neutrality debate under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the role of civil-rights groups in both net neutrality and broader discussions of communications policy will likely increase as activists attempt to advocate on behalf of marginalized populations in distinct and, sometimes conflicting, ways.

In our working paper, we discuss how civil rights and minority-focused advocacy groups such as the NAACP, Free Press, and Tribal International Carrier (TIC) have engaged – or circumvented – Internet policy issues to better serve the communication and technology needs of their underrepresented constituents. In addition, in accordance with critical race theorists (e.g. Kimberle Crenshaw and Cheryl Harris), we explore the complexity of the concerns and experiences of a variety of communities of color in order to promulgate inclusive communications policy and frameworks in current and future policymaking.

As a result of our analyses of the aforementioned organizations and three distinct communications issues and debates, the co-authors concluded that the policy sphere needs to:

  1. Expand beyond a technical, market-centric definition of Internet issues and involve more non-corporate, non-state groups in policy discussions;
  2. Encourage increased exchanges between academics and policymakers, especially involving scholars with expertise in areas of critical race theory and issues of social inequality as their core foci; and
  3. Take care to foreground and map out the multiplicity of debates within and between communities of color, striving to unpack what causes these differences rather than assume that all underrepresented communities are part of the same monolith.

Generally, the co-authors observed that many communications policy issues are framed as debates about market forces, investment, and the costs and benefits of a given government intervention. Consequently, historically-marginalized communities, often low-income communities of color, have fewer entry points to policy conversations due to their lack of capital and perceived lack of economic importance.

Civil-rights organizations’ and advocates’ stances on policy issues can also become quite precarious because, as non-profit organizations, these organizations are often dependent on elected officials or corporate funding to sustain their future efforts.  This support can be rapidly lost due to a loss of a sympathetic (elected) advocate or a stance that conflicts with a corporation’s interests.  Organizational resources formerly dedicated to advocating for equitable policy outcomes then must be diverted to basic operational needs and fundraising.

Furthermore, although legal research and economics are often included in policy discussions, sociological theory of race and ethnicity, and other issues of social inequality, are not.  Although these theories depict the uneven playing field, inequity is portrayed as monolithic and thus differences in policy stances between organizers and organizations of color are often, all too bluntly, reduced to conversations regarding funding priorities, ignoring the different needs and resources of different communities of color.  Moreover, there are too few attempts to address the systemic nature of inequity which is tied to decades of federal disinvestment in communities of color.   

Our research is as an early attempt to infuse communications policy conversations with the much-needed perspective of critical race theory in order to disentangle the motivations and hardships of activists working on behalf of marginalized communities. We argue that critical race theorists and other social scientists are desperately needed to complement, and deepen, communications debates, in the interest of a more democratic communications ecology.  For examples of current exemplar research interrogating the unequal landscape of communications policy in light of issues of race and ethnicity, we particularly recommend the work of engaged scholars such as Nicol Turner-Lee, Victor Pickard, Todd Wolfson, Becky Lentz, Alison Perlman, and Rob McMahon.  Admittedly, the general lack of racially-diverse voices in this arena speaks to the institutionalized racial barriers of the academy and we believe that this, too, must be addressed concurrently as more voices – particularly those of historically-marginalized communities – are increasingly valued and foregrounded in important policymaking discussions.

We hope that our research highlights the need for critical race frameworks to address racial inequity in communications policy debates. We are grateful to TPRC and the Benton Foundation for providing us with a platform to talk about this research and connect with policymakers and researchers. We aim to use this platform to further elevate the good work being done by the organizations and activists we study and we look forward to a future of more open and inclusive telecommunications policy discussion.  

The Charles Benton Junior Scholar Award recognizes significant achievement by a junior scholar in the areas of digital inclusion and/or broadband adoption, as evidenced by an empirically-based research paper, a policy proposal with justification, or an original essay. Matthew Bui and Rachel Moran are the 2018 recipients of the award.

Matthew N. Bui is a doctoral student and Graduate Fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.  He researches the social, cultural, and policy implications of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in everyday life and is particularly interested in issues of justice and equity as they pertain to urban communication technologies and data infrastructures within local governance processes.  Matt has received honors and awards for his research, including the 2018 Urban Communication Research Grant, the Aspen Institute’s Guest Scholar Award, and a Randall Lewis Data Science Fellowship.  He graduated from UCLA with honors, with a BA in Communications, and completed his MSc in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  The son of refugee parents, he strives to give back to the community as a scholar, advocate, and activist through his work.

Rachel E. Moran is a doctoral candidate and Oakley Endowed Fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Her dissertation research is concerned with the role of trust in news media and looks, in particular, at the history of liberal news media and the potentials for a trusted partisan press. Rachel’s prior research is focused on the challenges and potentials of “networked journalism” and the role of regulation in this space. She graduated with a BA(hons) and an MA in Social and Political Science from Selwyn College, Cambridge University, and also holds an MA in Political Communications from Goldsmiths College, University of London.

For more information about this research project, findings, and collaborations, please contact Matthew (buim@usc.edu) or Rachel (rachelm@usc.edu).