ONE OF THE SADDEST THINGS about life in the 1990s is that nothing is exempt from racial bean-counting—not education, not television, not even surfing the web.
Witness the Commerce Department's recent 108-page report, "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide." As part of an ongoing study, the Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration looked at Census Bureau data from December, 1998, to determine how many Americans have access to computers and the Internet. They found that 42.1 percent of American families now have home computers, up from 24.1 percent in 1994 and 36.6 percent in 1997. Internet use is at an all-time high of 32.7 percent. Black and Hispanic households, the report notes, are twice as likely to own computers as they were in 1994, and are 50 percent more likely to use the Internet than in 1997.
As the study's authors wrote, "the number of Americans connected to the nation's information infrastructure is soaring." Good news, right? Wrong. It seems that the percentage of whites who own computers and go online increased compared to the percentage of blacks and Hispanics who do. For example, in 1994, 27.1 percent of white households owned computers, compared to 10.3 percent of black households, a difference of 16.8 percentage points. By 1998, 46.6 percent of white families and 23.2 percent of black families owned computers, a difference of 23.4 percentage points. Alarmed, the authors report in screaming italics that "the gap between white and black households grew 39.2 percent."
They also report a 20.7 percentage-point gap in Internet use, up from 13.5 points in 1997. Reactions have been predictably hysterical. Larry Irving, Commerce's assistant secretary for Communications and Information, said the "racial ravine" was "one of America's leading economic and civil-rights issues." President Clinton paused in his Poverty Tour to bemoan the "digital divide."
The NAACP's Kweisi Mfume declared that children "are being subtracted out of the equation by a technological separation of the races." Vice President Al Gore called for an "all-out-national crusade to close the digital divide," and warned that "unless we make the right choices now," technological innovation will become "an engine of inequality."
Gore wants to double government high-tech investment, expand computer education, and put computer terminals in stores so that people could surf the web while they shop. As the CATO Institute's David Boaz points out, Commerce is putting the worst possible spin on its own numbers. It's true that the difference between white and black computer ownership rose from 16.8 points to 23.4 points. But it is equally true that while whites' computer ownership has increased 72 percent since 1994, ownership by blacks has increased 125 percent, and 107 percent by Hispanics. White families are still more likely to own computers, but black and Hispanic ownership is increasing more quickly, doubling over the last four years.
Is this what Larry Irving considers a pressing civil-rights issue? The story is similar for Internet use. Internet access among whites increased 52.8 percent between 1997 and 1998. Among blacks and Hispanics, it increased by nearly identical amounts: 52 percent and 48.3 percent, respectively. Keep in mind that seven years ago the number of people with Internet access was, roughly, zero.
The cardinal rule of racial bean-counting is that everything is a zero-sum game—there is only so much of the pie to go around. If some people (whites) do well, the thinking goes, other people (blacks, Hispanics) must be suffering.
Such suffering requires government intervention. Inconvenient details—like the doubling of black computer owners, or the fact that Asians are most likely to own computers—are kept safely in the background.
In the meantime, computer prices and Internet fees continue to fall. The NAACP and AT&T are together building computer-training centers in twenty cities, including Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle. AmeriTech, an Illinois-based phone company, has teamed up with the National Urban League to create Internet centers in places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis. San Francisco's OpNet has a training program especially for minorities aged 18 to 25.
Some of these corporate initiatives have the whiff of a racial shakedown la Jesse Jackson (who recently set up an office in Silicon Valley the better to harangue computer companies), but the fact remains that such efforts have a much greater chance of success than the government programs Gore proposes. Companies have both philanthropic and financial incentives—the more people who know how to use computers, the more will buy them. All of this is good news.
Blinded by race, Clinton, Gore, Mfume, and the Commerce Department simply don't see it.
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