Earlier this year, we wrote about how a bevy of civil rights groups like GLADD and the NAACP supported, inexplicably from our point of view, the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. That deal fell apart yesterday, and the telecoms will not be combining forces after all. One civil rights group that never supported that union was Color of Change, who sent a petition with 53,000 signatures to the FCC to oppose it. The Voice spoke with the group’s Executive Director Rashad Robinson, who is both a member of the NAACP and former employee of GLAAD, about Color of Change’s relief that the merger went down.
Here’s an edited transcript of our phone interview.
I wrote, critically, earlier this year about GLAAD and the NAACP supporting the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. What, I thought, did being gay or black have to do with supporting a telecom merger? How did Color of Change get involved with this issue?
Color of Change has been a supporter of net neutrality for years, long before AT&T and T-Mobile were trying to merge. We were fighting for a fair and open internet for years. This was an extension of that fight, with a clear understanding that, according to PEW research, when you account for cell phone use, there is no “digital divide” between black people and other communities. So cell phones are really a vehicle for black folks getting on the internet. Creating a monopoly, or having a virtual monopoly with two companies controlling 85% of the cell phone market – and having both of those companies having been opposed to net neutrality? That would really have an impact of black people’s access online.
You bring up the “digital divide.” Tell me more about it. When you talk about black people needing open access to the internet, do people take you seriously?
There’s been a lot written about the digital divide and how less likely black people are to be connected to the internet. There’s data on the numbers of computers in homes, and there’s definitely truth to that. But with the growth of the smartphone market, and with the ability of people to access broadband through their cell phone — and particularly in urban areas that have traditionally been hubs for black communities — black people have more access than ever to getting online, much more than 10 years ago. In terms of being able to apply for a job, to register to vote, to do any number of day to day things, having access to the internet is vital to having access to the outside world.
When the AT&T/T-Mobile merger was supported by GLAAD and the NAACP, where you surprised? Not surprised? Disappointed? Angry? Anything else?
I’m a lifetime member of the NAACP. I grew up in the NAACP. I was at GLADD until a couple of months ago.
Yeah, I was a senior director of programs. I was the number two person before I became director. I couldn’t understand GLAAD’s rationale for the merger, or many groups’, but especially GLAAD’s. The NAACP talked a lot about unions and minority contractors, which AT&T does have a better record on than most other companies. The NAACP has a record of supporting them for that, but they were also saying things that were parroting AT&T’s talking points on net neutrality and broadband coverage that weren’t true. At least, though, the NAACP was saying some things [about AT&T] that were in line with their record. GLAAD, on the other hand, had no history of fighting for unions or minority contractors.
I found it perplexing.
It is perplexing. To the extent that speculation has been made, and a lot has been written, what was most disappointing is the way in which mergers like this really decimate our ability to organize in the future. They prevent us for doing the things that the progressive community does best: rapid response, mobilizing constituents, and organizing on the local level. Color of Change wouldn’t exist without net neutrality.
Of course, stopping one merger does not solve the problem of net neutrality.
Not, it’s not solved. I do think this is a big moment. We want to help Americans — everyday citizens, consumers — to understand they truly have power in this process. When we first got involved and reached out to other organizations, we were told this was a fait de complet. We kept hearing, “The merger is a done deal. Now you’re throwing out attacks for no good rason.” There is a way in which I hope this underscores how everyday people can have a role in pushing back against corporate power. Whether it’s folks occupying parks across the country, or pushing back against a merger that’s bad for consumers, in this country we have an opportunity and a responsibility to push back against power to make it accountable. It’s no easy, but we don’t make a difference unless we try.
We did a lot of outreach. We got 53,000 signatures from our memberhship in two or three days, before the deadline to submit to the FCC. It took much longer than a normal online outreach, because we went through a campaign to explain the impact on lack people, poor people, and people of color . We were facing an uphill battle with civil rights organizations that have a long history with AT&T, who were parroting their talking points as soon as the deal was announced.
Was it disheartening to see the NAACP standing with AT&T?
We stand with the NAACP on many issues. We were both together, side by side, in Georgia trying to save the life of Troy Davis. We’re fighting together to fight discriminatory border ID laws. There are ways we will disagree in the future. I would rather not question their ethics, and I don’t think this is about thtat. This is questioning any progressive organization that believes that a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile is good for consumers. There are other arguments that other groups have made around unions and other things that have carried weight, and I don’t want to dismiss thouse issues. I don’t want to dismiss the Communication Workers of America and their concerns about labor. But at the same time, I can’t think of any merger where there haven’t been jobs lost. That’s the whole point of a merger, that jobs will be lost and people will be laid off.
But at the end of the day, all of us become weaker in fighting for civil rights and on behalf of poor people and marginizalized people if we don’t have access to a free and open internet. If the corporations we are trying to keep in check have control over the vehicle we are using to keep them in check.