When the personal computer revolution began decades ago, Latinos and Blacks were much less likely to use one of the marvelous new machines. As the Internet began to change life as we know it, these groups had less access to the Web and slower online connections – placing them on the wrong side of the “digital divide.”
Today, as mobile technology puts computers in our pockets, Latinos and Blacks are more likely than the general population to access the Web by cellular phones, and they use their phones more often to do more things.
But now some see a new “digital divide” emerging. Researchers have noticed signs of segregation online that perpetuate divisions in the physical world. And Blacks and Latinos may be using their increased Web access more for entertainment than empowerment.
Fifty-one percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of Blacks use their phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of Whites, according to a July 2010 Pew poll. Forty-seven percent of Latinos and 41 percent of Blacks use their phones for e-mail, compared with 30 percent of Whites. The figures for using social media like Facebook via phone were 36 percent for Latinos, 33 percent for Blacks and 19 percent for Whites.
A greater percentage of Whites than Blacks and Latinos still have broadband access at home, but laptop ownership is now about even for all these groups, after Black laptop ownership jumped from 34 percent in 2009 to 51 percent in 2010, according to Pew.
This trend is alarming to Anjuan Simmons, a Black engineer and technology consultant who blogs, tweets and uses Facebook “more than my wife would like.” He hopes that Blacks and Latinos will use their increased Web access to create content, not just consume it.
“What are we doing with this access? Are we simply sending e-mail, downloading adult content, sending texts for late-night hookups?” Simmons says. “Or are we discussing ideas, talking to people who we would not normally be able to talk to?”
Simmons has made professional connections and found job opportunities through social media. But when he first started using Twitter, the first thing he looked for was other Black faces to connect with.
“The African-American community has a built-in social layer,” Simmons says. “We tend to see other African-Americans as family. Even if we haven’t met someone, we often refer to other Black people as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters.’”
But mobile Internet access may not be the great equalizer. Aaron Smith, a Pew senior research specialist, says there are obvious limitations on what you can do on a mobile device–updating a resume being the classic example.
“Research has shown that people with an actual connection at home, the ability to go online on a computer at home, are more engaged in a lot of different things than people who rely on access from work, a friend’s house, or a phone,” Smith says.
The early days of the Internet were filled with visions of a Utopian space where race would disappear. But the reality has turned out much differently, says Peter Chow-White, an assistant communications professor at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the forthcoming anthology “Race After the Internet.”
“As long as you have structural inequalities in society, you cannot expect to have anything less than that on the Internet,” he says. “The Internet is not a separate space from the world, it’s intricately connected to everyday life and social institutions.”