Race and the Digital Divide: Is it a Factor?
by Tomeka Smalls

Abstract:

         This paper is about the technological divide that exists in the United States.  It determines who are affected by the digital divide, who are being left behind in the divide, and how to decrease the gap between the haves and the have nots are effected by race, education, and finance .  The statistics show that "The reality is if you’re not plugged into the Internet in the near future you’re going to be unplugged from job opportunities, unplugged from consumer opportunities, from finance opportunities.(Barrales)"  With the advancements on the divide made by President Clinton hopefully the divide can ne narrowed
 

Introduction

As stated by Ruben Barrales, the President of Joint Venture in Silicon Valley Network, “The reality is if you’re not plugged into the Internet in the near future you’re going to be unplugged from job opportunities, unplugged from consumer opportunities, from finance opportunities.”  The Internet is a source of information that is continually shaping roles in society.  As the Internet becomes more important to the job market and education, one begins to question what will happen to those who are being left behind in this digital revolution? Who are exactly being left behind in the digital revolution?  Does it matter that the Internet as a whole is not geared to other races and the homeless?  How can we bridge the gap between the haves and have not concerning technology?  These questions in part were answered when President Clinton traveled to many Native American reservations discussing the need for the poor to be included in the growth of technology in America.  Although there has been much debate over whether or not there should be any extra effort in getting the poor involved in using the Internet and whether there is an actually divide in technology among the races, it is vital to the country’s prosperity that those who are being left out to learn how to use the Internet, because these people would no longer be able to support themselves financially.

“The problem with the Internet community is that there are … too many white guys in the room,” says Andrew “Flip” Filipowski, himself a white man and CEO of an Internet start-up called Divine InterVentures. As we begin to identify those that are being left behind in the digital revolution it is hard to deny the fact that race plays a major role in the divide. The Internet, which is meant to serve as a mean of communication, employment, and has many other uses that does not benefit everyone.  The digital divide is such an important topic that President Clinton discussed its causes and how to remedy the problem as he traveled across the United States. When looking at the divide in deeper detail Clinton found that in East Palo Alto, a community of 28,000 Blacks and Hispanics, which is only a few miles away from the wealthy Silicon Valley, where the ratio of students to computers are twenty-eight students to one computer.  Silicon Valley is full of potential job opportunities for the people of Palo Alto, but how can they, if they are not accustomed to computer technology?

The digital divide is not only contained in urban areas.    The digital divide is not only a problem with not having computers and not logging on the Internet.  One of the biggest problems is that many of the nation poor households do not have access to telephones.  The United States rural areas also experience a lack of technology.  A Commerce Department report in July found that households earning $75,000 or more in urban areas are more than 20 times as likely to have Internet access as rural households at the lowest income levels.  Black and Hispanic households are two-fifths as likely to have Internet access as white households. () How can these people have access to the Internet if they do not even have telephone lines?  There are many other studies that show that whites are much further ahead in advancements of technology than other minority groups.

According to the Vanderbilt study performed by Thomas P. Novak and Donna L. Hoffman, “Bridging the Digital Divide: The Impact of Race on Computer Access and Internet Use,” there is a huge gap between whites on the Internet and African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.    It was shown that whites are more likely to own a computer at home than African Americans (44.2 percent versus 29.0 percent), and to have access to computers at work (38.5 percent versus 33.8 percent).  The study also showed that as of January 1997 only 5.2 million African Americans and 40.8 million Whites had ever used the Internet.  Hoffman and Novak found that with higher education African Americans are more likely to use the Net, but what is shocking is the number of African American and White students on the Internet.  Among students who did not own a computer more white students used the Net more than black students.  Also 73 percent of white students own a computer while only 32 percent of African American students own a computer.

The statistics are even worse for Native Americans.  According to the study, Falling Through the Net:  Defining the Digital Divide, July 1999 only 26.9 percent of rural Native American households had access to computers compared to the national average of 42.1 percent.  Compared to the national average of 26.2 percent only 18.9 percent of Native American households had access to the Internet.  The report found about 47 percent of all whites own computers, but fewer than half as many blacks do. About 25.5 percent of Hispanics own computers, but 55 percent of Asian-Americans do. Asian families also are most likely to have Internet access, with 36 percent online.(Falling Through the Net) From this statistic it can said that some minority groups are more welcomed into the technological world than others.  The digital divide survives because of stereotypes, which in turn these stereotypes affect the financial status of those that are caught up in the divide.  As of April of this year the Forrester Research reported that 43 percent of Caucasians, 33 percent of African American, 47 percent of Hispanics, 69 percent of Asian Americans, and 43 percent of all households are connected to the Internet.

  There are many causes and consequences to the digital divide.  As Novak and Hoffman explains,
 The consequences…of a persistent racial divide on the Internet may be severe, if a significant segment of our society is denied equal access to the Internet, U.S. firms will lack the technological skills needed to remain competitive.  Race matters to the extent that societal biases have either required African Americans to obtain higher education levels in order to achieve the same income as whites, or resulted in older African Americans not being able to achieve high incomes.(Borland)
There is no doubt that income plays a role in the number of Americans using the Internet, but to what extent does race effects income?  It is a known fact that minorities, especially African Americans are paid less for the same job as their white counterparts.  With this fact how can African Americans catch up with technology without help?

African Americans have and still will be poorly educated.  If many of the African American students are not from affluent neighborhoods or in any case middle class white neighborhoods, then these students will face disadvantages that their white counterparts will not see.  It is a known fact that the Internet helps students achieve better grades. In wealthy schools (less than 11 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch), 74 percent of classrooms are connected to the Internet, compared to 39 percent for the poorest schools (71 percent or more of students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch) (Fall 1999 data, Dept of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, "Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms," February 2000). Many schools in the urban ghettos do not have adequate libraries. If a computer or Internet was present in the home or at school the child could use the information to help them with their schoolwork.

Anthony Walton states, “Blacks have participated as equals in the technological world only as consumers, otherwise existing on the margins of the ethos that defines a nation, underrepresented as designers, innovators, and implementers of our systems and machines.”  As of right now the number of African American, Native American, and Hispanics majoring in some type of science or mathematics is decreasing.  African Americans make up 13 percent of the population in the United States, but as of 1995 only 1.3 percent earned Ph.D’s in computer science, 2.1 percent in engineering, 1.5 percent in physical sciences, and 0.6 in mathematics. (Walton) It can be said that many of these jobs are not geared toward minorities.  The likelihood of an African American student majoring in computer science or computer engineering with no forehand experience in programming or computers is very slim to none, but it is not impossible for a student of this stature to excel.  This student would have to spend the rest of the college life playing catch up with their counterparts who already have had some experience in those technological fields.

The digital divide not only effects education it also affects jobs as well.  In a more current analysis by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) reported that there was a decline in the number of African American, Native American, and Hispanics enrollment in engineering from 1992 to 1997.   “There were 1576 fewer
minority freshmen in 1996 than in 1992, and the proportion of minority students fell from 4.7 percent in 1989 to 3.6 percent in 1995”.   George Campbell Jr., President of NACME, puts some of the blame on the backlash of affirmative action.  Some quotas of Affirmative Action are still needed in this country, because minority students are not getting an equal education in elementary and high schools compared to the majority in this country and the United States as a whole still holds some of its prejudices. One can say that the Internet serves as a barrier like the low overpasses constructed by Robert Moses that kept African Americans and the poor from reaching the middle class and wealthy neighborhoods of New York.  The lack of the Internet in the homes of the poor keeps them from reaching a level of prosperity that the other citizens in America seem to
enjoy. Mario Morino of the Morino Institute comments, “The digital divide is a manifestation of economic and educational gaps that have existed in this country long before the microchip and the Internet were invented.  Digital divide is a term as demeaning as one from a past era, They live on the wrong side of the tracks.”(Cisler)

How will the digital divide effect the future citizens of America? As the Hispanic population continues to rise and if the digital divide continues to grow many people will sink into deep poverty or homelessness.   Each and everyday it is more prevalent that the Internet is changing the society as a whole, and is also changing the job market everyday.  “The shift of the American economy from goods production to services over the past quarter century has substantially altered labor markets and the demand for workers, especially in the cities of the Midwest and Northeast.”  It will be hard for people to find
jobs because they lack computer skills and eventually the computer will take some of the jobs that are now being performed by humans now.  Also the homeless population continues to grow as the market becomes more technological.    African Americans make up the largest homeless population, which was 49 percent in the 1998.   Because of the technological market continues to grow more minorities are becoming homeless.

There are those who still do not see why closing the digital divide is so important.  “The United States is currently confronting what can be best described as another Industrial Revolution.  The rapid acceleration of computer and telecommunications technologies is a major reason for the appreciable increase in our productivity in this expansion, and is likely to continue to be a significant force in expanding standards of living into the twenty-first century.” (Alan Greenspan) Many of them will only begin to think about the divide when it affects their pockets.  For example many Americans see welfare as a burden that takes money from their families.  As the number of people living in poverty and the number of homeless continues to grow someone will have to find ways to help these people get their lives back in track.  For exampled, the trends show that computers skills will be needed to perform in the job market of the future.  Therefore if the poor in today’s society cannot afford a computer how will they be able to better themselves in the future?  And for those who still say that it is not my problem, it is apparent that they have not thought about these issues.

 How can America as a whole change the current trend that is heading toward those who have not used the Internet or computers becoming desperate and homeless?  As of this moment President Clinton is implementing plans that will close the digital divide.  Clinton has asked the nation’s companies and citizens to help him achieve the goal of every child in the nation to be logged on to the Internet, make the Internet universal in every home, and tutor adults in using the Internet.  Clinton states, “We all know there are people and places that have not fully participated in this new economy. I see these places as places of opportunity, if we can create new employees, new businesses, new jobs, new opportunities, we can keep the American economy going.” Many companies are donating money, training for teachers, and equipment to those who lack the technological services.   Companies such as Qualcomm, Microsoft, America Online, Novell, Hewitt-Packard, and Gateway have all donated money to the cause.  Even telephone customers will foot some of the cost for bridging the gap.  There will be a 0.4 percent increase in the long distance surcharge on telephone bills.  The decreasing costs of  computers are allowing more people a chance to tap into technology.

As Carvin states,  "The digital divide is one of the most important civil rights issues facing our modern information economy.  As telecommunications increasingly entwines itself with educational, social, financial, and employment opportunities, those communities lacking access will find themselves falling further behind the rest of society. The Internet has the potential to empower its users with new skills, new perspectives, new freedoms, even new voices; those groups who remain sequestered from the technology will be further segregated into the periphery of public life."  Technology is important to society and to the prosperity of the United Sates and its people.  It is up to the those who are ahead of others in the advancement of technology to get everyone else involved.

 


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