Racial Digital Divide in 2019 (Final Project)

Micco Brisker

Professor Jia

COMM 385

5 May 2019

Digital Divide in 2019 (To Watch My Short Video Explanation Click HERE)

As the digital age has evolved, digital inequalities have emerged alongside well-established social imbalances which inflames enduring racial, educational, and class divisions. Imagine attempting to board a moving train from a platform 50 yards away, while others are able to conveniently walk right onto it without complications. The digital revolution is that moving train, and the platform consists of the economic resources and technological aptitude required to advance onto the train. The digital divide is generally defined as the growing gap between underprivileged members of society, especially the low-income, rural (but not always), and less educated population who do not have access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), or the internet; and the wealthy, middle-class and young people living in urban and suburban areas who have access. Today, the digital divide is a global phenomenon but presents serious concerns to millions of Americans. Several key elements contribute directly to this phenomenon, such as income, education, geography and race. Race, in particular, is at the core of the divide and is interrelated with all of the aforementioned factors.

The most recent Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) report found that approximately 25 million people or 8% of the population, still lack access to broadband internet. However, this figure is highly debatable. In an official Microsoft blog, president Brad Smith noted that the Pew Research Center has been tracking internet usage in this country since 2000, and according to their latest data, 35% of Americans report that they don’t use broadband at home. Evidence from a new study by Microsoft paints a very different picture on the actual use of high-speed internet from the F.C.C. numbers. At a Microsoft event last December, their analysis concluded that 162.8 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, which is roughly half of the country (Lohr).

Regardless of the different calculations to determine the digital divide, one thing is for certain: in the 21st century, affordable access to the internet is a basic human right. In 2015, the F.C.C. defined high-speed Internet as a public utility and made connecting all American homes to the web a priority, but many communities still suffer from internet inequity. Predictably, those most affected by the digital divide are low-income families, particularly racial minorities. To understand why African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the digital divide, one must understand the extant socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. In 2016, U.S. working families led by racial minorities were twice as likely to be poor or low-income compared with non-Hispanic whites according to a new report from the Working Poor Families Project in collaboration with the Population Reference Bureau (Mather, PRB).

As a result, broadband disparities are particularly severe for African-American, Native American, and Hispanic households with school-age children (aged 6-17), especially those with low household incomes. According to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, a quarter of teens whose family income is less than $30,000 a year do not have access to a home computer, compared with 4% of those whose annual family income is $75,000 or more (Anderson and Perrin). Roughly 41% and 38% of African-American and Hispanic households with school-age children earning less than $30,000 per year, lack access to high-internet speeds. This issue persists across all income levels, as these African-American and Hispanic households are also less likely to have access to broadband across higher income levels measured up to $75,000 or more.

According to a 2003 study by the University of California, Latino Policy Institute and California Policy Research Center, not all minorities suffer from the digital divide, as Asians actually have higher home computer and Internet use rates than white, non-Hispanic rates (75% and 53% compared to 66%). The same is not true for Native Americans, who are seldom discussed in conversations about racial injustices related to the digital divide, as they have lower rates than non-Hispanic whites at roughly 49% and 31% (Fairlie).

Furthermore, the percentage of students with either no access or only dial-up access at home was highest for Native-Americans. Roughly 27% of Native-Americans, compared to 19% African-American and 17% Hispanic, lack quality access according to a new study by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2018. One might be curious as to whether certain Native American tribes even want to participate in a more interconnected sphere. Perhaps, their indigenous villages are preferred over the global village, the Internet.

Although there are certainly an eclectic variety of opinions on this issue, Ahniwake Rose of the National Indian Education Association believes that galvanizing these communities to become more digitally connected is necessary. In 2016, she spoke in an interview with Comcast Newsmakers about the digital dilemmas facing the Native American community and some of the challenges moving forward. “We need to make sure that the access that is already there is strengthened. We’re concerned that when folks are able to get online, those small one-lines will not be capable enough to handle the increased bandwidth,” Rose said. Former-president Obama announced at the end of his final term that he wanted all children and adults to have access to the internet and be “digitally connected” in order to have a “better quality of life”, yet the federal, state and local governments along with  tribal community institutions fail to give their inhabitants quality internet access (Paramo). Not only is closing the digital gap important for students of tribal communities in their use of completing school-related activities, but it will also increase their ability to succeed in STEM fields, as the U.S. will rely on this field more and more in the future. Rose also mentions that with quality internet access, STEM and basic curriculum will be available for students and teachers (Paramo).

Indeed, the digital divide is correlated with disparities in educational institutions across the country. Some 15% of U.S. households with school-age children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to the same Pew Research Center study (Anderson and Perrin) which affects their ability to complete work at home. The “homework gap” is a symptom of the digital divide which refers to an academic burden for teens who lack access to digital technologies at home. Again, race is inextricably linked to this issue.

African-American teens, especially those from lower-income households, are more likely to face these school-related challenges as a result, according to the new Pew survey of 743 U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 conducted March 7 through April 10, 2018 (Anderson). One-quarter of black teens say they are sometimes unable to complete their homework due to a lack of digital access, including 13% who say this happens to them often. Just 4% of white teens and 6% of Hispanic teens say this often happens to them.

In addition to this, the wealthier, suburban schools in the U.S. have already implemented digital training programs, but as economic inequality grows, so does digital literacy and access to educational resources. Within this dilemma is the undesired marriage of multiple socioeconomic factors that affect the digital divide, which are race, income and education. Teachers in high-poverty schools are consistently less likely than their counterparts to say they have received technology-integration training. In a recent Education Week analysis of two Pennsylvanian school districts,high-poverty and low-poverty areas, there was a clear difference in digital training between schools. In South Fayette school district, teachers have greater access to digital tools and technologies to improve classroom environments and curriculum. About 80% of students are white and just 13% are poor, while in Sto-Rox school district, only 33% are white and 77% are poor, and therefore receive abysmal digital literacy services for teachers (Herold). The Pittsburgh Business Times released its annual rankings of 103 school districts in Allegheny County. South Fayette was No. 1. Sto-Rox was No. 102.

A decade ago, the Pennsylvania education department tried to address the inequities. They spent $60 million a year for a program called Classrooms for the Future, which provided new computers to every high school in the state and hired nearly 500 coaches to provide in-class technology support for teachers, but removed this program in 2011, due to budget cuts (Herold). Ultimately, can students be expected to improve their technological prowess if their teachers lack adequate digital resources in the first place?

On the other hand, zip code largely determines an individual or family’s access to the internet and ICTs. Traditionally, the digital divide is more severe in rural communities than urban communities. According to the same 2018 Pew survey, 24% of rural adults say access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their local community. By contrast, less Americans who live in urban areas (13%) or the suburbs (9%) view access to high-speed internet service as a major problem in their area, however the numbers do not tell the whole story. Notwithstanding these statistics, the digital divide transcends rural communities by affecting millions of people in cities.

As a result, many low-income residents who pay most of their money towards rent, groceries and transportation are forced to go to public spaces, like libraries, to use broadband internet. In urban cities like Detroit, the lack of affordable, quality access to the internet is a major concern. According to the F.C.C., Detroit has the worst rate of Internet access of any big American city, with 4 in 10 of its 689,000 residents lacking broadband. Roughly 83% of Detroit is African-American. Many other large inner cities that are in the top five worst rate of Internet access are predominantly black, such as Jackson, MS and Birmingham, AL, which both tout African-American populations of over 75% (Brodkin). Most of the urban communities suffering are being left out for a variety of reasons, including low education rates and poor transportation. This perpetuates a cycle of inequality that plagues folks on a daily basis: the ability to search for jobs, apply for financial aid, connect to health insurance and complete homework.

It is self-evident that high quality internet access is vital to the modern economy, and affects the ability for individuals to succeed in educational and professional spheres. The digital divide is a widespread and multifaceted issue, however, race is coterminously and indelibly tethered to the elements of income, education and geography. This is not to say that an individual’s race will dictate their access to ICTs or the internet, but it is to predict that low-income racial minorities who lack educational resources in both urban and rural environments will almost certainly be on the losing end of the digital divide compared to their counterparts.


Anderson, Monica. “For 24% of Rural Americans, High-Speed Internet Is a Major Problem.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 10 Sept. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/10/about-a-quarter-of-rural-americans-say-access-to-high-speed-internet-is-a-major-problem/.

Anderson, Monica, and Perrin, Andrew. “Nearly One-in-Five Teens Can’t Always Finish Their Homework Because of the Digital Divide.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 26 Oct. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/26/nearly-one-in-five-teens-cant-always-finish-their-homework-because-of-the-digital-divide/.

Brodkin, Jon. “In Detroit and Other Cities, Nearly 40 Percent Go without Internet.” Ars Technica, 4 Nov. 2014, https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/11/in-detroit-and-other-cities-nearly-40-percent-go-internet-free/

Fairlie, Robert W. “Is There a Digital Divide? Ethnic and Racial Differences in Access to Technology and Possible Explanations.” CJTC — The Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community, Nov. 2003, https://cjtc.ucsc.edu/docs/r_techreport5.pdf

Herold, Benjamin. “Poor Students Face Digital Divide in How Teachers Learn to Use Tech.” Education Week, 20 Feb. 2019, www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/06/14/poor-students-face-digital-divide-in-teacher-technology-training.html.

Lohr, Steve. “Digital Divide Is Wider Than We Think, Study Says.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Dec. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/technology/digital-divide-us-fcc-microsoft.html.

Mather, Mark. “Race/Ethnic Income Gap Growing Among U.S. Working Poor Families.” Population Reference Bureau, 2015, www.prb.org/working-poor-families/.

“NCES Blog: The Digital Divide: Differences in Home Internet Access.” National Center for Education Statistics, 31 Oct. 2018, https://nces.ed.gov/blogs/nces/post/the-digital-divide-differences-in-home-internet-access

Paramo, Ebony. “Race and the Digital: ‘Native Americans and the Digital Divide’ by Ebony Paramo.” Race and the Digital: Racial Formation and 21st Century Technologies, 2016, http://scalar.usc.edu/works/race-and-the-digital/blog-title-by-paramoe

Smith, Brad. “The Rural Broadband Divide: An Urgent National Problem That We Can Solve.” Microsoft on the Issues, 11 Jan. 2019, https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2018/12/03/the-rural-broadband-divide-an-urgent-national-problem-that-we-can-solve/


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