Debating The Racial Divide

Recent reports indicate the digital divide is an issue about income, not race. But some African-American leaders disagree.

by / March 29, 2001
Concerns about racial disparity and the Internet were discussed and debated in the press and among scholars throughout the 1990s, but the issue didnt really come to a head until 1998. That year, for the first time, two scholars presented concrete demographic research that showed a digital divide along racial and economic lines.

In their report, "Bridging the Digital Divide: The Impact of Race on Computer Access and Internet Use," Professors Donna L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak of Vanderbilt University provided evidence showing that whites were more likely to have a computer at home and to use the Web than blacks. More disturbing was the fact that white students were twice as likely to have a computer than black students, and whites who didnt have a computer were five times more likely than blacks to find another way to use the Web, such as at a friends house, a library or a community center.

Evidence of a racial divide on the Internet was further reinforced the following year when the U.S. Department of Commerce released its report, "Falling Through the Net," which concluded that the gap between the technology "haves" and "have-nots" had increased between 1994 and 1997, with blacks and Hispanics falling further behind. Backing this evidence was a survey taken in 1999 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which showed that, while blacks are increasingly likely to use the Internet, the participation gap between whites and blacks had widened by nearly 50 percent over figures from 1998.

The centers study showed the gap was most noticeable at poverty levels. Only 11 percent of black households with incomes under $15,000 reported using the Internet compared with 23 percent of whites earning the same income. With nearly one in four black families living at that poverty level, compared to 17 percent for whites, 14 percent for Hispanics and 7 percent for Asians, alarm bells started ringing in the federal government.

In his final State of the Union address, President Clinton vowed to attack the digital divide with a program called ClickStart, which would make $100 million in subsidies available to get nearly 10 million poor households online. The reason for such a program was clear, explained Clinton. "Today, opportunity for all requires something new: having access to a computer and knowing how to use it. That means we must close the digital divide between those who have these tools and those who dont."

Later, the White House expressed more succinctly the reason for the subsidy: Access to computers and the Internet and the ability to effectively use this technology are becoming increasingly important for full participation in Americas economic, political and social life.

With new evidence of a racial divide on the Internet mounting almost daily, black leaders began voicing concern about the digital divide, with some calling it a racial ravine. In March, the Rev. Jesse Jackson opened an office in East Palo Alto, Calif., on the edge of Silicon Valley. The opening was part of his effort to close the digital divide for the poor in general and blacks in particular.

Economic Divide

But just as government and black leaders began to marshal support for closing the race gap on the Internet, new studies began to emerge, stating that the biggest gap on the Internet was not between ethnic groups, but the rich and poor. In April last year, Forrester Research issued a study showing a divide based not on ethnicity, but on disparities of income, age and education within the major ethnic groups. "In 1999, connectivity to the Net from home increased by at least 11 percent for all ethnic groups," said Ekaterina O. Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research.

In June, a similar study by Jupiter Communications came to somewhat the same conclusions. While acknowledging a pronounced gap in Internet usage among ethnic groups, the study projected that this gap will close significantly over the next five years. Blacks had only a 30 percent rate of participation in 1999, lowest among all ethnic groups, but were expected to close that gap by two-thirds by 2005.

Some people were quick to jump on these statistics and call the digital divide a myth, insisting that most of the "have-nots" were in fact "want-nots" who didnt care for technology in the first place. Others, including a number of prominent black high-tech leaders, saw optimism in the new numbers. David Ellington, CEO and founder of, told Salon magazine that he no longer believed a divide existed between races. "The Internet is now becoming relevant in our lives as a result of e-mail and chat sites, and African-Americans are going online in droves," he said.

Others, including Barry Cooper, CEO of, and Charles Ellison, co-founder of, agreed that income was the divider, not race, and that more blacks than ever were going online.

Disparitys Roadmap

But reports of the digital divide shrinking as the PC becomes as ubiquitous as the telephone havent quieted all voices in the black community. Last December, during the National League of Cities conference, black local elected officials filled a conference room at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston and nodded their heads in agreement when they heard Wilbert Minter, a council member from Oak Ridge, Tenn., call the digital divide a slam-dunk against African-Americans.

Later, when asked about the new data showing the digital divide as a problem about income, not race, Minter said people are missing the point. "African-Americans are the most economically disenfranchised ethnic group in America. We know there is a racial problem in this country. Its a fact and we have to deal with it."

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that more whites than blacks are able to take advantage of the benefit of not paying a sales tax when shopping online, according to Minter. "That means African-Americans are disproportionately paying more in sales taxes," he explained.

But the divide hurts blacks in other ways as well, added Minter. They lose out on the convenience that the Internet provides, forcing more blacks to spend time riding buses, driving or walking, whether its to shop, search for information or conduct business with their government. "The poor end up being disenfranchised in more ways than one because of the divide," he pointed out.

Black officials believe the solution to the digital divide will come from a combination of government aid, private-sector support and greater involvement within the black community. For the latter to work, Minter believes black communities have to create a "disparity roadmap" so that blacks can find some way to a computer thats hooked up to the Internet. Churches, schools, libraries and neighborhood centers can set up a network of computers, classes and volunteers.

Of particular concern is reaching young students who need easy access to computers and the Internet in order to keep up with their peers who are already online. Officials believe most black families can afford todays low-cost PCs, especially when they are purchased on a payment plan.

Already, studies show that black families subscribe to cable TV and pay-per-view entertainment in high numbers. Whats needed is an effort to educate them about the value of owning a computer with an Internet connection.

For all of this to happen, local officials have to play the role of cheerleader, showing their constituents the importance of technology by using it themselves and evangelizing its benefits.

"Its not our job as local officials to buy the computers for the disadvantaged, but to show them the usefulness of going online," explained Minter. "Thats the best thing we can do."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor