Is the digital divide a black thing?

As Jesse Jackson opens his Silicon Valley office, some black tech execs say the issue is class, not race.

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On Thursday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson opens a new office in the heavily black city of East Palo Alto, about 30 miles south of here, which will serve as the Silicon Valley headquarters of his new effort to close the so-called digital divide– the tendency for African-Americans and the poor to lag behind other groups in computer and Internet use.

But an increasingly vocal group of black technology executives say complaints about blacks falling behind may not help African-Americans — and may not be entirely based in fact.

The digital divide is far more about class than race, they argue, and depicting blacks as hopelessly behind may hurt African-Americans, not help them. Certainly the latest numbers on technology use show that the digital divide cuts many different ways.

Instead of showing a predictable black-white gap, technology research reveals that Asian-Americans, not whites, have the highest Internet and computer use. And while blacks at most income levels lag behind whites and Asians, it’s Latinos, not blacks, who are the least likely to be wired. But no one’s worrying aloud about an Asian-Latino digital divide.

In fact, African-Americans are going online in ever-increasing numbers, boosting their spending on computers and computer-related products by 143 percent in 1999, according to Target Market News. A recent report by the Joint Center for Political Studies found that there’s little difference in Internet usage between upper-middle-class blacks and whites. And at the highest income levels — above $90,000 annually — blacks are more likely to be wired than whites.

“People have legitimate concerns,” says Barry Cooper, the CEO of blackvoices.com. “But if [there] is a divide, it is economic.”

David Ellington, CEO and founder of Netnoir.com, the first major black site on the Web, agrees.

“I don’t feel there is much of a divide anymore,” said Ellington. “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.”

So why the agitation about blacks being on the wrong side of the digital divide? Many trace it to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s “Falling Through the Net,” which was released in the summer of 1999. The report found that overall, blacks and Latinos were 40 percent less likely to have computer access than whites.

Then a Joint Center report on Internet use broke down the data in more detail (but only for whites and blacks). The overall divide, the center shows, has to do with the larger numbers of African-Americans in poverty. The study showed that 11 percent of African-American households with incomes under $15,000 reported using the Internet at home or work, compared with 23 percent of comparable whites. But the divide closed sharply as incomes climbed. Two-thirds of blacks making between $60,000 and $80,000 use the Internet, roughly the same as whites, while a full 83 percent of those with incomes over $90,000 used the Internet more than whites with comparable incomes.

Still, the rhetoric continues to depict the digital divide as a black-white thing. Vice President Al Gore called it the nation’s “No. 1 civil and economic issue.” And in the wake of the alarmist Commerce Department report, Jesse Jackson met with Silicon Valley execs, and called for action to close the divide, especially more minority appointments on their boards.

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President Clinton made the digital divide a main topic in his State of the Union address in January. And a few days later, he unveiled “ClickStart,” a new federal program to subsidize computers and Internet connections for the poor. The program will issue vouchers that poor families can use to purchase the equipment and services they need. But some have called it corporate welfare.

Black technology leaders worry that the emphasis on race in the debate over the digital divide is casting blacks in the proverbial role of victim, when this is far from the truth.

“It (ClickStart) will help to a certain degree to get blacks online, but it can come back to bite us,” said Ellington. He worries it positions blacks “as in need of help, and only through the government can blacks succeed.”

There are 5 million blacks online, and with computer prices dropping to the tune of a little over $500, many of the poorest people are making sacrifices to get computers and online service.

Evidence of the sharp increase in the number of African-Americans online can be seen in the rising number of advocacy and promotional campaigns taking off on the Internet and via e-mail. Many credit the underground success of the film “The Best Man,” starring heartthrobs Taye Diggs and Morris Chestnut, to a virtual campaign that relied heavily on e-mail.

“When we showed the film at Urban World film festival in New York, we told people in the audiences to get the word out by mailings, telephone calls, postcards and e-mail,” said Malcolm Lee, the director of “The Best Man” (and Spike Lee’s cousin). The film earned more than $34 million without any major mainstream media support, and Lee credits a grass-roots e-mail campaign that took off among viewers of his film who wanted to support it.

“I believe that black people have proven that when technology becomes relevant to us, we embrace it,” agrees Ellington. “Just look at the two turntables that helped to create hip-hop.”

It may be hip-hop that ultimately closes what’s left of the digital divide for young African-Americans. A growing number of hip-hop sites have sprung up in the past few years, drawing younger people online to investigate. With more and more original music available online, “hip-hop makes computers relevant to a lot of people,” says Dave (Davey-D) Cooks, the publisher of the Davey-D hip-hop report, and founder of his own Web site.

Cooks thinks blacks need to pay attention to how technology is used, rather than wring their hands about the shrinking digital divide. Asks Cooks: “Do you want to give your power to other people or do you want to take your well-being into your own hands?”

Lee Hubbard is a San Francisco writer who covers hip-hop culture as well as urban and national affairs.

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