|NY Times, March 31, 2006
Blacks Turn to Internet Highway, and Digital Divide Starts to Close
By MICHEL MARRIOTT
AFRICAN-AMERICANS ARE steadily gaining access to and ease with the
Internet, signaling a remarkable closing of the "digital divide" that many
experts had worried would be a crippling disadvantage in achieving success.
Civil rights leaders, educators and national policy makers warned for years
that the Internet was bypassing blacks and some Hispanics as whites and
Asian-Americans were rapidly increasing their use of it.
But the falling price of laptops, more computers in public schools and
libraries and the newest generation of cellphones and hand-held devices
that connect to the Internet have all contributed to closing the divide,
Internet experts say.
Another powerful influence in attracting blacks and other minorities to the
Internet has been the explosive evolution of the Internet itself, once
mostly a tool used by researchers, which has become a cultural crossroad of
work, play and social interaction.
Studies and mounting anecdotal evidence now suggest that blacks, even some
of those at the lower end of the economic scale, are making significant
gains. As a result, organizations that serve African-Americans, as well as
companies seeking their business, are increasingly turning to the Internet
to reach out to them.
"What digital divide?" Magic Johnson, the basketball legend, asked
rhetorically in an interview about his new Internet campaign deal with the
Ford Motor Company's Lincoln Mercury division to use the Internet to
promote cars to black prospective buyers.
The sharpest growth in Internet access and use is among young people. But
blacks and other members of minorities of various ages are also merging
onto the digital information highway as never before.
According to a Pew national survey of people 18 and older, completed in
February, 74 percent of whites go online, 61 percent of African-Americans
do and 80 percent of English-speaking Hispanic-Americans report using the
Internet. The survey did not look at non-English-speaking Hispanics, who
some experts believe are not gaining access to the Internet in large numbers.
In a similar Pew survey in 1998, just 42 percent of white American adults
said they used the Internet while only 23 percent of African-American
adults did so. Forty percent of English-speaking Hispanic-Americans said
they used the Internet.
Despite the dissolving gap, some groups like the Intel Computer Clubhouse
Network, which introduces digital technologies to young people, say the
digital divide is still vast in more subtle ways. Instant messaging and
downloading music is one thing, said Marlon Orozco, program manager at the
network's Boston clubhouse, but he would like to see black and Hispanic
teenagers use the Internet in more challenging ways, like building virtual
communities or promoting their businesses.
Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation,
which has studied Internet use by race, ethnicity and age, cautioned that a
new dimension of the digital divide might be opening because groups that
were newer to the Internet tended to use less-advanced hardware and had
slower connection speeds.
"The type and meaningful quality of access is, in some ways, a more
challenging divide that remains," Ms. Rideout said. "This has an impact on
things like homework."
In addition, Internet access solely at institutions can put students at a
disadvantage. Schools and other institutions seldom operate round the
clock, seven days a week, which is especially an issue for students, said
Andy Carvin, coordinator for the Digital Divide Network, an international
group that seeks to close the gap.
But not everyone agrees that minorities tend toward less-advanced use of
the Internet. Pippa Norris, a lecturer on comparative politics at Harvard
who has written extensively about the digital divide, said members of
minorities had been shown to use the Internet to search for jobs and to
connect to a wide variety of educational opportunities.
"The simple assumption that the Internet is a luxury is being disputed by
this group," Ms. Norris said.
The divide was considered so dire a decade ago that scholars,
philanthropists and even President Bill Clinton in his 1996 State of the
Union address fretted over just what the gap would mean in lost educational
and employment opportunities for young people who were not wired.
In an effort to help erase the divide, the federal government has provided
low-cost connections for schools, libraries, hospitals and health clinics,
allocated money to expand in-home access to computers and the Internet for
low-income families and given tax incentives to companies donating computer
and technical training and for sponsoring community learning centers.
As a result of such efforts, "most kids, almost all kids, have a place in
which they can go online and have gone online," said Ms. Rideout of the
Jason Jordan of Boston is one of the young people closing the divide.
Jason, 17, who is black, is getting a used computer from an older brother.
He said he had wanted a computer for years, since "I heard about a lot that
I was missing."
Jason said he had access to the Internet at school, where he is pursuing a
general equivalency diploma, but looked forward to having his own computer
and Web access at his home in the Dorchester section of Boston. "I can work
in my own place and don't have to worry about the time I'm online," he said.
Like Jason, almost 9 out of 10 of the 21 million Americans ages 12 to 17
use the Internet, according to a report issued in July by the Pew Internet
and American Life Project. Of them, 87 percent of white teenagers say they
use the Internet, while 77 percent of black teenagers and 89 percent of
Hispanic teenagers say they have access to it, the report said.
The gap in access among young Americans is less pronounced than among their
parents' generation, said Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew
project. "Age continues to be a strong predictor for Internet use," Ms. Fox
While, overall Internet use among blacks still significantly trails use
among whites, the shrinking divide is most vividly reflected in the online
experience of people like Billy and Barbara Johnson. Less than two years
ago, the Johnsons, who are black, plugged into the Internet in their
upscale suburban home near Atlanta for the first time. Mrs. Johnson, a
52-year-old mother of four and homemaker, said she felt she had little
choice because her school-age children needed to use the Internet for research.
And then there is e-mail. "No one really wants to take the time anymore to
pick up the phone and keep in touch," lamented Mrs. Johnson, who said that
so much of the communications with her children's school was done through
e-mail correspondence. "I felt like I was pretty much forced into it."
Even so, Mrs. Johnson said her husband, an assistant coach for the Atlanta
Falcons, still chided her when she neglected to check her e-mail at least
Ms. Norris and other experts on Internet use see progress on the horizon.
They note that the declining cost of laptop and other computers, and
efforts, like those in Philadelphia, to provide low-cost wireless Internet
access, are likely to increase online access for groups that have been slow
Philanthropic efforts have also helped to give more people Internet access.
For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $250 million
since 1997 for American public libraries to create Internet access for the
public. Martha Choe, the foundation's director of global libraries, said
some 47,000 computers had been bought for 11,000 libraries. Today, Ms. Choe
said, most libraries in the United States have public Internet access.
Education levels remain a major indicator of who is among the 137 million
Americans using the Internet and who is not, said Ms. Fox.
There is also a strong correlation, experts say, between household income
and Internet access.
With so many more members of minorities online, some Web sites are trying
to capitalize on their new access. For example, the New York/New Jersey
region of the State of the African American Male, a national initiative to
improve conditions for black men, is encouraging men to use digital
equipment to "empower themselves" to better their lives. The site, which
includes studies, public policy reports and other information about issues
related to black men, promotes using digital cameras, mobile phones and
iPods, but mainly computers, to organize through the Internet, said Walter
Fields, vice president for government relations for the Community Service
Society, an antipoverty organization, and a coordinator of the black-male
initiative. Users are encouraged to submit articles, write blogs and upload
pertinent photographs and video clips.
"What we're doing is playing against the popular notion of a digital
divide," Mr. Fields said. "I always felt that it was a misnomer."