Race, Culture, and the "Digital Divide"

By Schweikart, Larry | Ideas on Liberty, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Race, Culture, and the "Digital Divide"


Schweikart, Larry, Ideas on Liberty


Prior to the September 11 attacks and the stock market slump, one of the hottest policy issues debated by technology scholars was the so-called racial "digital divide," a term concocted to portray "haves and have nots" in the world of the Internet. The paper "Bridging the Digital Divide: The Impact of Race on Computer Access and Internet Use" is typical: "[S]ome social scientists are beginning to examine carefully the policy implications of current demographic patterns of Internet access and usage."1 Former Vice President Al Gore suggested several policy proposals for closing the "digital divide," and President Bill Clinton's "Call to Action for American Education" proposed universal Internet access for students.

Studying race or group behavior is dubious at best; in today's climate, it's even dangerous, since racial groupings are used by collectivists to serve a political agenda. Nevertheless, it is useful to examine the claims being made. Thomas Sowell has cautioned that culture, for example, is a far more important factor in economic activity than race, and in the case of the digital divide, the "experts" may be examining racial characteristics when they should be considering cultural effects. There is also substantial new data showing that Americans are racially intermarrying more frequently. The Census Bureau threw up its hands in frustration trying to count mixed-race Americans in the last census.

That said, let's examine the new arguments about the digital divide, pretending for a moment that race was a factor in computer access and use.

First, although many readers may have trouble recalling a time without computer technology, it is still relatively new. Nevertheless, the Internet has filtered through the social strata from the top down faster than any other technology in history. According to Joel Kotkin and Ross DeVol's working paper for the Milken Institute, here is how fast selected products spread to 25 percent of the population: IMAGE FORMULA18

Internet usage in 2001 reached 176 million Americans, 62 percent of the population, according to one Nielsen survey, up from 57 percent just a year earlier. Still, "digital dividers" sound the alarm. Jesse Jackson claimed that differences in Internet use between whites and blacks are "classic apartheid."2 Research shows that differences in Internet use have little to do with income. Instead, computer access has played the pivotal role, according to Thomas Novak and Donna Hoffman of Vanderbilt University.3

To solve the "problem" (with "problem" defined as any differences between groups), obviously all the government needs to do is to make sure that regardless of income, everyone has access to a computer.

Not so fast. Other evidence shows that blacks in high numbers have computer access at work-virtually equal to that of whites-and that if one holds income and education constant, blacks are more likely to have computer access at work than whites.4 This statistic makes sense considering that blacks, in far higher proportions than whites, work for state, local, or the federal government, where computers are provided.

Does education explain the "divide"? There appears to be a link between education and computer access, but a tenuous one. Both British and American studies have shown that more highly educated people tend to use the Internet more, although the notion that pinheaded "friendless nerds" comprise the majority of "surfers" is baseless: one U.K. study found that "internet users lead more sociable lives than nonsurfers."5 However, before researchers jump the gun to claim a link between education levels and Net use, existing studies would have to go much further to hold constant the quality of education in racial comparisons, something that is seldom done.

Divide Myth

When the rhetoric is stripped away, it appears that the racial "digital divide" is largely a myth, and to the extent it does exist, it is somewhat correlated to education and somewhat correlated to access to computers. …

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