Internet access: A black-and-white issue
by J. Raloff
One commonly cited estimate holds that at some point in their lives, roughly 1 million African Americans have logged onto the Internet. A new study suggests that the actual number is five times that -- with more than 1 million having used the World Wide Web in the previous week.
Nevertheless, this is only a small fraction of the African Americans who would like Internet access and could benefit from it, say Donna L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak, marketing analysts at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. In the April 17 Science, they note "a persistent racial divide on the Internet" and observe that unless this unequal access to the Information Revolution is redressed, it may limit the workforce available for jobs requiring computer literacy and exacerbate racial differences in income.
Hoffman and Novak analyzed data from a recent survey of Internet use among nearly 6,000 U.S. respondents. Not surprisingly, as education climbs, so does workplace access to the Internet -- by blacks and whites. However, regardless of education, whites were significantly more likely to own a computer and to have used the Web recently than were blacks.
The investigators also found that as income rises, so does computer ownership, though not equally. For households earning less than $40,000, whites were twice as likely to have a computer. Above $40,000, African American households were slightly more likely to have a computer at home -- and at work.
The latter "suggests a very powerful bias," Hoffman contends. "To achieve parity [in home access to the Internet], African Americans have to be much better educated, wealthy, and work in computer-related professions" -- a very narrow slice of society. Among those who are not online, more blacks than whites said they desired Web access.
"The most shocking finding," Hoffman argues, "is one not explained by income or education." High school and college students were the group most likely to have used the Web, and black and white students with computers at home had logged onto the Internet about equally in the last 6 months (64 versus 67 percent, respectively). In homes without computers, however, black students were only half as likely as white students to have used the Internet (16 versus 38 percent), even if their schools have computers.
This means that "white students are finding [Web] access that blacks are not enjoying," she says. So "if we have limited resources, we need to first be sure students have [Internet access] at home," she maintains -- before society worries about getting the public schools wired.
"I think the Internet is really the wave of the future, and all homes should be so equipped," especially if they have children in third grade or above, says Francis I. Molina of Project 2061, an educational program run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.
"Personally, I agree with that," says Gerald Wheeler, president of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va. "But that's not the only solution," he says. Such home access "needs to be reinforced by teachers cognizant of how to use this technology."
From Science News, Vol. 153, No. 16, April 18, 1998, p. 248.
Copyright Ó 1998 by Science Service.
Hoffman, D.L., and T.P. Novak. 1998. Bridging the racial divide on the Internet. Science 280(April 17):390.
Dede, C. 1997. Rethinking how to invest in educational technology. Educational Leadership 55(November):12.
Lipkin, R. 1995. The library that isnt there. Science News 147(June 3):344.
Raloff, J. 1996. Minds-on science. Science News 149(Feb. 3):72.
Vergano, D. 1996. Science and math education: No easy answer. Science News 150(Nov. 30):341.
Francis I. Molina
American Association for the Advancement of Science
3033 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20005
National Science Teachers Association
1840 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22201-3000
copyright 1998 ScienceService