At a time when the Clinton administration is touting the Internet as an engine of commerce and a tool of democracy, a new study has found that black Americans are far less likely to use the global computer network than are whites.
The sharp racial divide is especially evident among households below the median income. The study, to be published today in the journal Science, found that in households with annual incomes below $40,000, whites were six times as likely as blacks to have used the World Wide Web in the past week.
Lower-income white households were also twice as likely to own a home computer as were black households.
The study is significant because it documents concerns that the recent exponential growth of the Internet might further exacerbate the gap between the nation's rich and poor. And while it is no surprise that Americans with lower incomes are less likely to own a computer, the study highlights for the first time what may be the more disturbing role of race in determining who has access to digital technology.
"Anybody poor is in trouble here," said Donna L. Hoffman, a professor of management at the Vanderbilt University and an author of the study. "But if you're poor and black, you're really in trouble with respect to access."
Among blacks with incomes more than $40,000 a year, home computer ownership is roughly equal to that of whites of comparable incomes, the study found, and blacks were even more likely than whites to have access to the Internet at work.
Hoffman and her co-author, Thomas P. Novak, found that blacks at higher income levels have had more education, are younger and are more likely to be working in computer-related jobs than whites with similar incomes, leading to a high level of access to technology. But only about one-third of black households have incomes of more than $40,000, compared with about two-thirds of white households.
The survey's results were based on data provided by Nielsen Media Research in a poll conducted from December 1996 through January 1997.
The quantification of such stark incongruities comes at a time when President Clinton has repeatedly called for the wiring of the nation's schools and libraries and Vice President Al Gore has extolled the virtues of the Internet as a forum for public discourse. This week, Commerce Secretary William M. Daley released a massive report celebrating the impact of the information revolution on the U.S. economy.
But with Internet traffic doubling every 100 days, it appears that for the moment, at least, the majority of blacks are being left
behind. About 58 million Americans have used the Internet, according to a recent survey by Nielsen Media Research. Only about 6 percent of those are black, although blacks account for 12 percent of the population.
"Income isn't the only impediment; there's something else going on," said Larry Irving, the assistant secretary of commerce who oversees a $20 million project that finances technology demonstration projects in poor communities. "There is more content by, for and about the African-American community on the Net than there is in probably any other medium, but I don't think that's known. There's still a mythology that this isn't for us, that this is for scientists or upper-income people or for geeks."
One problem, Irving said, is that schools and communities with high minority populations are much less likely than predominantly white districts to provide Internet access.
In a related development yesterday, the Associated Press quoted the nation's top telecommunications regulator as saying schools and libraries most in need should be first to get discounted hookups to the Internet.
"The discount must -- let me repeat -- must go first and foremost to those places where it is most desperately needed," Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard said in a speech, responding to pressure from Congress.
As it stands, the discounts -- which are to be given out soon -- would go to qualified schools and libraries on a first-come, first-served basis.
The only exception is this: Schools and libraries that filed applications for discounts during a 75-day period that ended Wednesday would all be treated as though they filed at the same time, FCC officials said.
A Senate bill would require that schools and libraries most in need get the discounts first.
The discounts are paid for through fees on telephone and other telecommunications companies, which typically are then passed on to customers.
Also responding to Congress' concerns, Kennard said he would come up with ways to revamp two programs that administer the discounts to schools, libraries and rural health care facilities.
Pub Date: 4/17/98