Education, Race and the Internet: Digital Divide or Racial Ravine?

Historically torn by racial and ethnic differences, Americans were supposed to benefit from the democratizing power of Internet technology. The Internet has been touted as the cure-all for every social ill imaginable, a new millennium development with the potential to broaden access to education, voting, and medical care—and in doing so, create a new avenue toward democracy.  On the whole, that has not been the case. The utopian visionaries who watched too many Star Trek episodes in their youth forgot one important thing: In our world, profit often takes precedence over democratic dreams.

The Digital Divide

Nothing shows this more than the “digital divide” between the haves and the have-nots in the United States—a divide that often falls along racial lines, with poorer Americans, usually non-whites, having less access to adequate Internet services and, therefore, less ability to participate in the new opportunities presented by the Internet. During his presidency, Bill Clinton called this the “racial digital divide,” and Larry Irving, assistant secretary for communications and information for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), has more recently called this the “racial ravine.”

However, racial or ethnic differences are seldom referenced in discussions about making Internet access more affordable.  Instead, the “digital divide,” is often discussed in economic terms. And economic differences in Internet access are clear: The first federal survey of Internet access in the United States revealed in February 2011 that low-income and rural students do not have access to adequate Internet speeds, which hinders their educational options and achievements. Broadband service seems linked to income, which is part of the larger “technology gap” between developed and developing nations, which is tracked by the United Nations.

The Real Issue

But according to Glenn Singleton, CEO of Pacific Educational Group,  which focuses on racial education inequalities, terms like the “digital divide” veil the real issue.  He said, “We like to create proxies for conversations around race. We talk about poverty, not recognizing that poor white kids outperform poor black and brown kids.” This means that among poor students, Black and Latino students still do worse than white students. According to Education World,  a recent NTIA report shows that “although Black and Hispanic households are twice as likely to own computers today as they were in 1994, those households are still only 40 percent as likely to have home Internet access as white households are. In addition, whites are more likely to have access to the Internet from home than Blacks or Hispanics are to have access from any location.”

The Comparison

These statistics are supported by data on student performance from elementary school to college.  Education Week reports that, “special analyses by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2009 and 2011 showed that Black and Hispanic students trailed their white peers by an average of more than 20 test-score points on the NAEP math and reading assessments at 4th and 8th grades, a difference of about two grade levels. These gaps persisted even though the score differentials between Black and white students narrowed between 1992 and 2007 in 4th grade math and reading and 8th grade math.”  One reason for such differences, according to many researchers, are “opportunity gaps” that prevent Black and Latino students from developing the skills they need to succeed academically. The lack of adequate Internet access is one of these opportunity gaps.

What’s Being Done

To close this opportunity gap, several private and public initiatives have increased funding for more and better Internet access in underserved communities. For example, the federal E-Rate program provides discounts on Internet access for schools and libraries, and both the Technology Opportunities Program and Community Technology Centers Program help to improve telecommunication access through matching grants.  This has improved access only slightly. Interestingly, though, National Public Radio recently reported that a Northwestern University survey shows that the availability of more affordable smart phones has helped young Black and Latino students actually surpass the participation rate of white students.

Private Companies Stepping In

And at least some private companies have been concerned enough about this opportunity gap to provide, in their own way, service to at least some of the underserved population of their local areas.  As reported in The New York Times, Randy Rucker, the co-founder of San Francisco ISP, was disturbed by the lack of access to the Internet in San Francisco’s Latino district, and made universal Internet access the focus of its “social contract.” To support that, the company placed small antennas near all the equipment of its paying customers.  These antennas then broadcast free Wi-Fi to that area.  In effect, is giving away its services to those who need it, supported by those who pay for it. Finally, the Digital Divide Initiative is a non-profit dedicated to expanding technology access to underserved populations in the United States and the world, by providing technology access and computer workshops and refurbishing equipment for redistribution.

Self-Selecting Groups?

It is clear that the racial digital divide has had serious ramifications for the educational needs of minority populations. Cass Sunstein, former Harvard Law professor and current Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has argued that the Internet actually divides people into “self-selecting groups with little diversity of opinion.”  But it may also be fair to say that much of the division created by Internet access—or lack thereof—is not self-selecting, but is instead a result of some traditional patterns of inequality linked to economics and racial and ethnic identity.

About The Author

Jill Rooney, Ph.D. is an education writer for After earning an undergraduate degree in Secondary Education and a Ph.D. in History, Dr. Rooney taught History, Political Science, and General Education college courses at state universities, small private colleges, community colleges, and for-profit colleges.

An experienced educator with expertise in American politics, Dr. Rooney has also published articles in publications by the Smithsonian Institution, Oxford University Press, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her teaching experience has taught her that all students really just want one thing: To learn. And that isn’t always easy, so she’s here to help!

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  1. rehabrajab

    October 21, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    it’s interesting how the Middle East is not represented at all in the visual! I live in the ME and everyone I know, let’s say around 2000 people have internet access. My school, which has 7 branches across the country, provides all 5000 students with MAC bookPro. This is just an example.

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