For as long as there’s been digital technology, there’s a been a ‟digital divide” between whites and African Americans. Loosely defined, it’s an inequality in the ability take advantage to the Internet’s vast informational resources from one population to another—be it in high-speed Internet access or even the physical devices required to log on in the first place. The popular conception of this inequity is that the rich have better access than the poor, people in first-world countries have better access that those in developing ones, and, at least in the United States, whites have better access than the racial and ethnic minorities.
However, a study released this week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds, in a sense, that the latter image is becoming increasingly inaccurate: The gap in Internet access may be less racial than it is economic.
The study, titled ‟African Americans and Technology Use,” surveyed over 6,000 U.S. residents aged 16 and older over a period of about three months. It found that 87 percent of whites said they used the Internet in some capacity, while only 80 percent of blacks said they did the same.
That gap disappears among people under the age of 50 and for those with at least some college education. However, for African Americans with a only a high school degree or less, the distance between them and whites with the same level of education widens to 11 percent.
‟If you’re upper-income, well-educated, or young, race doesn’t matter that much [when it comes to Internet access],” explains study author Aaron Smith. ‟For a while, there was an independent race effect, but that went away about five or six years ago.”
That study also found, holding all other variables are constant, there’s no difference in Internet usage between the two racial groups at the same income levels. Blacks who make under $30,000 per year use the Internet at the same rate as whites who make under $30,000 per year, just as blacks who make over $75,000 use the Internet at the same rate as whites who make over $75,000.
When it comes to having broadband Internet access at home, on the other hand, the divide is bigger, but breaks down along the same lines. Almost three-quarters of whites have broadband at home, while only only 62 percent of blacks have the same access. Once again, that gap disappears for people with at least some college education and among people at the same income level.
Smith worries that the divide’s continued existence among older people and those without a college education will prove increasingly problematic as more government and nonprofit services aimed at those groups move access exclusively into the online realm.
While blacks, as a group, lag behind whites in terms of both broadband and direct Internet access, they have often have significantly higher rates of smartphone usage—especially on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. African Americans earning between $30,000 and $75,000 are 11 percent more likely than whites in that same income bracket to own a smartphone. That number jumps to 14 percent for people making under $30,000.
A prior Pew Internet study found that one-third of blacks’ primary method of accessing the Internet is over mobile devices like smartphones—double the rate of whites. This widespread adoption of smartphone technology among African Americans is largely out of economic necessity. Smartphones provide access to the Internet often at a fraction of the price of laptop and dedicated broadband connection.
However, smartphones are far from a perfect substitute for a traditional computing experience.
“You can’t do your homework on a smartphone; you can’t help your kids with their homework on a smartphone; you can’t write your résumé on a smartphone. You can’t do any of that on a smartphone,” Stephanie Chen, a director at the social justice nonprofit Greenlining Institute, explained to the Daily Dot in an interview last year. ‟As a test, I went through the process and tried to apply for a job at Walmart on a phone. It was an arduous process."
But while more African Americans are gaining access to the Internet, the prevalence of their voices online are still largely marginalized. In a study of the articles published on highly trafficked online news sites like Salon and the Huffington Post in Harvard’s Nieman Reports, veteran journalist Jean Marie Brown found that the representation of African Americans was extremely limited.
After several months of regular weekday screening, I can confirm that mainstream online media are caught in the same loop that ensnared legacy outlets. Their view of minorities is limited, and that in turn hinders their ability to broaden their coverage. The parallels between the legacies and online media are as stark as they are disheartening. Rather than fostering understanding that might help us find common ground, mainstream online media maintain the divisive "us vs. them" mentality that is evident in many of our contemporary conversations about race.
Even so, when it comes to producing their own online content on an individual level through social media, African Americans do so at a rate equal to, and in some cases greater than, that of whites. The Pew Internet study found there to be no significant difference between the levels of social media usage between the two groups; except for in the category for people between the ages of 18 and 29, 6 percent more black young adults reported using social media than did their white counterparts.