Fighting racism online

Clinton and Gore's big promise looks like a digital diversion.

By Alicia Montgomery
Published April 24, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

In the tumultuous world of Internet enterprise, was particularly risky business for Charles D. Ellison, who founded the news and politics Web site with Roderick Conrad in June of 1999. Directed at African-Americans, has a target audience that's a minority to begin with, and an even smaller one on the Internet.

So if the government succeeds in bridging the digital divide -- the gap between blacks' and whites' access to computer and Internet technology -- Ellison should have reason to cheer. More readers, more page views and more advertisers would be sent his way, all thanks to the attention lavished on the digital divide. You'd think Ellison couldn't get enough of it.

But he has. And Ellison isn't alone among African-Americans who think the hype surrounding the digital divide has gotten out of hand.

"People make it seem like it's a racial issue when it's not," Ellison says of recent efforts by the Clinton administration to address gaps in computer technology access. Rather than concentrate on race, Ellison would like for more attention to be paid to the influence of income disparity on the digital divide. "This is about economics," he says

The president and Al Gore, however, have framed the digital divide in largely racial terms. Clinton has called the divide "the key civil rights issue of the 21st century," and delivered his "New Markets Initiative" speeches about technology access during visits to minority communities. In East Palo Alto, Calif., he pledged more than $380 million for government programs to help bridge the digital divide by building neighborhood technology centers, training teachers to be computer literate, wiring rural and inner-city communities and funding public/private partnerships to extend computer and Internet access to underserved areas.

Gore, meanwhile, has also played up the racial angle. He's made his major digital divide addresses of 2000 at Morgan State University and Morehouse College, both historically black institutions, and claimed the digital divide as the next battle in the crusade for civil rights. "We know that civil rights ring hollow without economic opportunity," Gore said at Morgan State. "And so we must recognize that in the Information Age, computer literacy is a fundamental civil right."

Yet the reality of the digital divide is not exclusively black and white, and is more politically complex than many acknowledge.

It can all be traced to July, when the Department of Commerce released "Falling through the Net," the report that forms the basis of Clinton administration digital-divide policy. Keeping in mind the political atmosphere at that time may explain why Clinton and Gore embraced the digital divide so fervently.

For one, Gore was floundering in early presidential polls, like a mid-July Gallup survey that showed the vice president 17 points behind George W. Bush in a head-to-head match. Bush, meanwhile, had neither been tested nor scarred by political battle. John McCain was a statistical blip, and his pre-primary, pre-Bob Jones sure-bet status made Bush an endorsement and money magnet. A major selling point for his candidacy was his seeming ability to attract minority voters at a level unprecedented for a Republican: Bush got 49 percent of the Mexican-American vote and 27 percent of the African-American vote in his 1998 reelection.

There was good reason to believe Bush could replicate his Texas success with African-American voters in a nationwide contest. In May, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a report showing that Bush had a favorability rating of 43 percent among African-American voters. While that was nowhere near Gore's rating of 69 percent, it was enough to make the Democrats worry.

Even if Gore would not have had to face a large block of black voters going over to the Republicans, Bush was clearly not the kind of Republican likely to inspire black voters to turn out against him. And so the digital divide became an issue Gore could use to galvanize the African-American vote.

That said, the Commerce Department found that blacks were 18 percent less likely than whites to have Internet access. While that figure is significant, the data showed education and income are much stronger indicators of who will and will not be on the Internet. The same report finds a 40 percent divide between college graduates and high school graduates, and a gap of more than 50 percent dividing households with more than $75,000 incomes and those at the poverty level.

And there is other available data that challenges the government's digital divide findings. Research from Forrester Research, a private, nonpartisan analysis firm specializing in technology issues, goes even further. Its study "The Truth about the Digital Divide," finds only a 10 percent gap between blacks and whites online, and its author, Ekaterina Walsh, says variables other than race are responsible. When controlled for age, income, education and "technology optimism" (the belief that technology can improve your life) Walsh says ethnicity "does not materially influence likelihood of being online."

Christopher Foreman, senior fellow of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, believes Democrats downplay the economics of the digital divide and play up the racial aspect because class doesn't have the same political firepower as race. "People don't organize on the basis of class," Foreman says. "And racism is a lot easier to get people interested in."

Though Foreman supports the Clinton administration's digital-divide initiative, he is uncomfortable with the trendy nature of the issue. "I am just very aware of the propensity in our policy discourse towards fad-ism, and there is nothing more prone to fad-ism than something like the Internet," Foreman says. He also feels that the resources could be better spent elsewhere. "It makes me nervous that people want to elevate the priority of the digital divide when we have a literacy divide," Foreman says.

Anti-affirmative action activist Ward Connerly, a member of the University of California Board of Regents, agrees. He says, "I think that a lot of this talk about the digital divide is part of the political gibberish used by people on both sides of the aisle" without knowing how to solve it, or what the real impact of that solution might be. Connerly rates closing the digital divide fourth among the top methods for improving economic and educational opportunities for blacks.

Connerly's top three priorities would be vouchers, public school reform and overcoming a culture of defeatism among the black underclass. This part of the "heavy lifting" he feels is necessary to eliminate the stubborn socioeconomic gaps between races, and Connerly believes that Democrats use the digital divide to avoid that. "As a Democrat, you can't go into [disadvantaged black neighborhoods] and say 'you've got to take responsibility for yourselves, you've got to motivate your kids,'" says Connerly. "It's a lot easier to talk about computers."

Foreman also sees politicians propping up the digital divide to get votes, but doesn't see it as limited to one race or one party. "One way to appeal to swing voters is to talk about your concern for minorities," Foreman says. He believes that Bush as well as Gore could garner moderate votes by promoting equal technology access for minorities as a racial justice issue. "The digital divide is a politically safe issue and, frankly, a sexy way to talk about it," Foreman says. "It's clear that affirmative action is a political death trap and we're not going to do universal health care, we're not going equalize income, so the digital divide is a safe way of expressing concern about blacks."

But if the digital divide gets discussed largely due to political expediency, that's just fine with Michael Tucker, Howard University journalism professor and chief new media proponent. "So what?" he says to charges that politicians are using the digital divide to woo black voters.

Tucker believes that, rather than distracting from larger issues of economic equality, the digital divide discussions draw needed attention to them in a time of national affluence. "Whites continue to prosper," Tucker says, "and blacks continue to prosper, but not as much." He attributes the economic distance between blacks and whites to a lack of black participation in the new economy, and thinks that resources aimed at closing the digital divide in inner cities are well spent.

"I hope people are getting smart enough to stop building basketball courts and start building computer centers," Tucker says of government efforts to renew troubled neighborhoods. And if candidates make political hay out the digital divide, then that's well worth the price of making African-Americans more Internet savvy. "If you're drowning, do you care who throws you a line? Do you care why?"

Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

MORE FROM Alicia Montgomery

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore Bill Clinton Democratic Party