21st: Race matters in cyberspace, too

Experts and entrepreneurs struggle to explain why African-Americans are underrepresented in the online population and in the Net industry.

By Cynthia Joyce

Published July 5, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

two years ago, when David Ellington decided to start NetNoir in the San Francisco Bay area, he faced a difficult choice. His company aimed to serve a black community online. Wouldn't it make sense to locate his offices in heavily black Oakland, instead of with all the other Web start-ups in San Francisco's mostly white South Park area, known as Multimedia Gulch?

Ellington -- deciding that his first allegiance was to blacks online, and that he could best serve that community if he first built a presence in the heart of the high-tech industry -- chose South Park.

"We realized Multimedia Gulch would make more sense because we'd be in the thick of it," says Ellington. "We'd at least be black players, able to go to lunch at the South Park Cafe and meet people and cut deals. We're a tech-driven media company, therefore I need to be around people doing cutting-edge technology. Why do I have to stay over [in Oakland] because I'm black -- to prove my blackness? Even when that might limit my growth, my strategic partnerships, my ability to leverage deals?"

NetNoir's dilemma reflects the thorny complexity of race in cyberspace. The online world has barely even begun to acknowledge the deep well of feelings and history that underlie the black American experience; the vague utopian heritage of the Net has led much of the online industry to act as though race simply disappears as an issue once we shed the physical world for the virtual. Oakland or San Francisco? That's not supposed to matter in the new world of the Net. But of course it does.

Blacks still make up a disproportionately small percentage of the American online population. (It's almost impossible to find a reliable exact number, since most demographic surveys of online users don't ask about race, though Net statistician Donna Hoffman says her Project 2000 is preparing a detailed study for release next month.) Ellington estimates that, out of America Online's 8 million-plus subscribers, at least 500,000 are black, and he expects that number to continue to grow.

"I'm not panicked," the NetNoir CEO says. "If in 2007, the numbers are the same, I'll panic. But in 1997, I still point out to folks that 99 percent of white people are still not online. So I'm not going to worry. One of the driving points of technology today is making things more widely available. Between kiosks, work environments and schools, there's going to be a lot of points of entry for people to get online."

In a 1995 study, "Falling Through the Net: A Survey of the 'Have Nots' in Rural and Urban America," the National Telecommunications and Information Administration reported that only 11.8 percent of urban black households have computers, compared with 30.3 percent of white households. (The numbers are even lower for rural black households. And not every household with a computer is online.) But any inquiry into such numbers inevitably produces circular, chicken-and-egg-style explanations: There's not a big black presence online because fewer blacks have computers, so there hasn't been much incentive to create content that caters to the black community, so there's not much reason for blacks to get online.

A similar dilemma has long faced the leaders of the U.S. newspaper industry, whose newsroom rosters have often failed to reflect the changing urban population. In one view of the problem, publishers will find black readers or users only if they can better integrate their staffs and the content of their publications.

"I know the names of a lot of minority journalists, and I don't see any of their names in the magazines like yours, Slate or Feed. Why is that?" asks former PC magazine editor Joel Dreyfuss. "There are thousands of black writers out there, dozens of Pulitzer Prize winners. So the question goes back to, what kind of intellectual culture is being created on the Net: Is it just going to be a bunch of white guys talking to each other?"

Now the editor of Our World News, an online weekly newspaper devoted to black perspectives on the news, Dreyfuss is hardly surprised by the relative "whiteness" of the Web -- after all, most Web ventures are a combination of the historically white computer industry and the predominantly white print publishing industry. But he is concerned that it will continue to be so, even as Web culture begins to penetrate the mass market.

He asks: "Where is the creativity going to come from? The nature of creativity in this country is that it comes from gays, from blacks, from Hispanics and Asians, as well as whites. But when you're operating in an all-white world, you're kind of missing the opportunity."

Print publications have long been under pressure to increase minority employment and have only made limited progress. Despite efforts over the past 20 years by unions and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, minorities -- including blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans -- comprise only 11.35 percent of U.S. newsroom employees today, according to a recent Editor and Publisher report. That's less than half the percentage of these minority groups in the general population.

But even that record looks good compared with the Web publishing industry, where many companies remain totally white. Startup companies are usually more concerned with trying to break even than with long-term social causes. And companies often argue that they don't have a large group of minority applicants to choose from in filling new jobs.

"We would like to increase the minority representation on our staff," says Salon executive editor Gary Kamiya, who acknowledges that Salon's staff includes few minorities and no African-Americans or Latinos. "As a start-up, your first need is to survive, so you tend to hire people you've worked with closely. In our case, for a number of familiar reasons, that pool didn't include many blacks or Latinos. But in our next round of hires, we'll definitely be looking for qualified people of color." Kamiya added that Salon has used many black, Latino and Asian-American freelancers.

While the past few years have seen a proliferation of black-oriented Web sites -- like Virtual Melanin, Cafe Los Negroes, Gravity and Melanet -- most of these sites are based in New York, where there is a much larger minority population.

"Clearly, we're the only black company in all of Multimedia Gulch," NetNoir's Ellington concedes. "So realistically, I don't know how much of a pool there is to draw from."

That's the complaint of Wired Human Resources director Marilyn Hommes, who says the company has had difficulty recruiting black applicants. "We're doing OK in just about every other area -- Asians, Hispanics, gays, women. And a lot of those groups are represented in upper management. But with African-Americans, that's where we're low," she says.

Ellington says that although he receives plenty of risumis from qualified black applicants, only two companies have come to him looking to recruit black employees. "I try to be objective and ask, how much can you expect start-ups to do all this aggressive outreach?" Although he recognizes that an industry with its legs so firmly rooted in libertarianism isn't likely to embrace anything resembling affirmative action, Ellington points out that "we've certainly found lots of black folks that do this. They do exist."

At some online companies, hiring policies are based on the principle that race not only shouldn't, but truly doesn't, matter. "The staff here is very ethnically diverse, but that's happenstance," says CNET editor Christopher Barr. He can't say how many of the company's more than 500 employees are black or members of other minority groups, he says, because "they were hired for their skill set only. When a risumi comes in, you don't know anything other than what's on there."

Still, if companies are hiring for "skill set only," that leaves journalists like Joel Dreyfuss wondering about the overall scarcity of black faces and black voices.

"I had an editor's column in Information Week that was very well read, but I never got a call from any of these online magazines saying, 'Hey, you wanna write something for us?'" Dreyfuss says. "It's not happened. I talk to my friends about it, some of them minorities who are running the Web sites for major papers, and no one's beating down their door. I can understand an editor at the New Republic or the New York Review of Books doing their thing, because they are mostly old, liberal white folks who have a kind of patronizing attitude about blacks anyway. But what concerns me is that the 30-somethings, the younger Web people, are not any different in their attitudes, or perceptions. The point is not affirmative action -- I don't want anybody to feel like they have to do affirmative action. The question is, can you have a more interesting site if you bring in a perspective that's not a rehash of what's seen on all the Sunday morning talk shows?"

But Ellington is much more optimistic. Preferring to focus on the "tech" half of "information technology," he believes technology can go a long way toward leveling the playing field: "Where liberal arts are still going to be heavily laden with biases, because they demand interpretation, here you can design the killer app and people don't care what you are -- VCs are ready to invest. If you're smart, you go to the head of the class."

Maybe so -- but try telling that to Ronald Dennison. A black programmer, Dennison was hired last year to do HTML work for the Web site of the high-tech investment magazine the Red Herring. Accustomed to doing more advanced programming, he found his efforts to advance were resisted. "Eventually, I had to be disobedient," he says. "If I tried to do more than just the HTML, they'd say, 'You can't do that.'"

Now the systems administrator, Dennison doesn't feel he's been discriminated against, emphasizing that he knows his boss hires people "based on what they can do." But he does remember feeling that, because he stood out as one of very few minorities in the office, "any mistake I made would be magnified." And because he knows he will never be part of the inner circle of friends that forms the core of the company, as with many Silicon Valley start-ups, he feels his opportunities are limited. "I'll never be in a position where they'll have me over to their house. They won't want me in that group. And even if I was there, I'd feel awkward," he admits.

Hoping to take what he's learned at the Red Herring and someday apply it to his own company, Dennison says the most important lesson he's learned is one that he's reluctant to accept -- that white faces have an easier time of it in the Web business: "If I'm going to get any help -- if I'm going to get anything for free -- I know I'll have to have a white front end."

Despite such stories and experiences, the notion that race "doesn't matter" in the online world and the industries that shape it remains widespread. In one MCI commercial, a rainbow of people stare at their computer screens to a world-beat soundtrack, while a voice commands the viewer to "imagine ... a world where race doesn't matter." To some critical observers, such rhetoric just masks a convenient, though sometimes well-intentioned, effort to sidestep unresolved racial issues instead of dealing with them in earnest.

"I think people would like to think we live in a world where race doesn't matter," says Soledad O'Brien, host of MSNBC's The Site. When she mentioned on her message board that she is half black, half Latina, some posters chastised her: "A couple of people wrote in and said they were offended I would mention my race, saying, 'You're a good journalist, that's all that matters.'" she says. "It's not all that matters. Race is an issue. It will always matter. It's your perspective, your history, your bias, for bad and for good. People have tried to argue that from the '60s -- 'I don't see color, everybody's beautiful' -- but I just don't buy that. I had long discussions about it, and they were all with white people. Latinas sent letters saying, 'It's so good to see a Latina on a show that would usually be only for white men.' Only white people were the ones who [objected]. I thought that was really interesting."

Having worked, often as the only minority female, in both print and broadcast newsrooms, O'Brien prefers acknowledging a journalist's perspective over the traditional media's cloak of "objectivity" and the Web's new promise of race-free anonymity.

"You can tell, right now, that most black organizations on the Web are very Afrocentric," O'Brien says. "And I think that's probably a good thing right now, because the Web is at such a beginning stage that you want to be able to help people find something they can relate to."

But Dreyfuss, of Our World News, worries that such narrowcasting of Web sites contributes to a resegregation of sorts.

"The question is, what do these Afrocentric sites bring to the Web? Are they just celebratory racial sites, or do they bring good writing, good stories, good entertainment -- good Webness to this? What I don't want them to do is let everybody else off the hook -- 'Well, the blacks have their sites, therefore we can just do our thing.'"

Whatever strategy Web companies adopt to try to reach black users and present black perspectives, they face plenty of difficulties.

The Red Herring's Dennison says: "I've been trying to get all my black friends online, get them into e-mail, but they don't have much interest. I taught a computer class at the local high school, and in a class of 36, only two students would come to me after class to ask questions, and they were both Asian. None of the blacks or Hispanics really gave a shit. But I see where the Web is going to become much more integral to people's lives -- it will affect money, voting, everything. I worry about people who are going to be left out.

"It reminds me of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie 'Total Recall,' where those with a key to the inside have all the oxygen, and those on the outside are either rebels or physically different somehow. In this scenario, it's blacks who won't have the key."

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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