Record numbers of students are going online, according to UCLA's annual survey of college freshmen released this past January. But this new battery of Internet statistics--the latest in a field updated as rapidly as software--confirms that a digital divide persists between the races. Of the freshmen surveyed at private universities, 90.2 percent reported using the Internet for schoolwork, but just 77.6 percent of students at traditionally black public colleges said the same. The study reveals that this problem is linked to the lack of computer access at public high schools, which 92.2 percent of the respondents from black public colleges attended, compared with less than two-thirds of the students surveyed at private universities.
Unfortunately, the press garbled these results. First, the New York Times's William Honan exaggerated the racial divide, reporting that the UCLA researchers found a "great disparity in computer mastery between students entering elite private colleges, 80.1 percent of whom say they use computers regularly, and those attending traditionally black public institutions, 41.1 percent of whom say that." These statistics actually refer to the percentage of students who use e-mail, not computers. The gap in scholastic Internet usage is significant (12.6 percentage points) but not inexplicably huge, while the e-mail discrepancy indicates that minority students, who are less likely to own PCs, are also less likely to have their own e-mail accounts or free time for nonessential computing at overburdened public terminals.
Honan's relatively benign conflation of these statistics soon mutated into a different and more troubling story. On January 25, Slate columnist Scott Shuger, dubbed a "cool cat" by William F. Buckley Jr. and recently wedged between Maureen Dowd and Matt Drudge as one of Newsweek's "20 Stars of the New News," sent out his site's widely read "Today's Papers" e-mail brief. Shuger summarized the Times's coverage but appended the following advice: "Before too much redistributive social policy gets made around such results, it might be good to add a question to the survey: 'Do you have a luxury sound system or a car less than two years old, or a luxury sound system in that car?'" Having stumbled upon such stereos--and students--at Freaknik, a spring break party for black college students in Atlanta, Shuger concluded that "computer/Internet paucity...may be a function of [black students'] own interests and choices rather than that of affordability."
The Times granted Shuger three paragraphs of blustering self-defense (and just two words of quoted criticism) the following week, excusing him as a groggy nocturnal Web reporter. But logic like Shuger's is far from innocuous. In its report "The Myth of an Emerging Information Underclass," the Cato Institute opined that "the fact that people do not log on does not necessarily imply that they cannot afford to do so. They may simply have other priorities." Last year, a combination of such cyberculture-of-poverty arguments and hysteria over a "Gore Tax" led Congress to slash the VP's Internet access program from $2.5 billion to nearly half that.
Advocates like B. Keith Fulton, director of technology programs and policy for the National Urban League, have little patience for such speculation. In predominantly white classrooms, Fulton points out, students are three times more likely to have Internet access than students in mostly minority classrooms. He says, "People like [Shuger] are not held accountable. They aren't out there working on studies, so they make a stereotyped comment and it gets attention. But we can train 1,400 people in an LA computer center, they can earn $31 million in salaries, and nobody talks about that." Fulton and the organizers of more than 250 community technology centers across the country (see www.ctcnet.org  for more information) help provide computers, training and resources to minorities through schools, libraries and public centers.
The racial digital divide is real and cannot simply be attributed to income, as corroborated by a series of federal studies. With historically inferior technology access, minorities have been discouraged from computer education, recreation and professions. Currently, African-Americans and Latinos compose 22 percent of the Silicon Valley area's population, but only 4 percent of employees at its major firms are African-American, and just 8 percent are Latinos--and many work in service or support positions.
These stark numbers result from a systemic denial of training as well as access, which is bad news for techno-optimists who foresee democracy flourishing as every television set becomes an Internet node. Even as the Internet becomes more accessible, a skills gap will persist unless public schools are able to offer equitable teaching and other resources. Studies by the National Science Foundation and Vanderbilt University have found that even minority students who are able to surf do not receive the same levels of practical computer training that would allow them to share in the economic benefits of the high-tech boom.
Smaller class size and higher teacher pay might well do more to improve heavily minority schools than a blueberry iMac, but teachers can't even begin to impart technological knowledge until they have computers and support. Linda Sax, director of the UCLA survey, says that although "nearly everyone's misinterpreted something" about the study, it nonetheless offers some reason for hope in this regard: "Our survey shows that minority students are using the computers at school. That's excellent. That's working." But, she adds, African-American students own fewer computers, and "there won't be equity [in access] until every student has their own computer." Ramon Harris, who directs the Executive Leadership Foundation's Transfer Technology Project, a program that works to enhance computer course programs at traditionally black colleges, has the same goal in mind. He says, "Universal computing access is necessary and should be subsidized like a utility. Like water. Like light. It's that simple."