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Black Students Found Less Likely To Access the Internet

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A study released this month showing that black students are much less likely than whites to own a home computer or have access to the Internet came as no surprise to people like Calvin Pearce.

Mr. Pearce, the director of a program run by the Washington-based Time Dollar Institute that puts used computers in the hands of children attending Chicago public schools, says some blacks still don't see the potential importance and relevance of technology to their lives.

"In the African-American community, a lot of times they think that the technology is coming, and they don't understand that it's already here," Mr. Pearce said last week. "They have a false sense in thinking that just the amount of time that the kids spend on the computer at school is enough."

The study by Vanderbilt University management professors Donna L. Hoffman and Thomas P. Novak, published April 17 in Science magazine, shows that 73 percent of white high school and college students own a home computer, compared with only 32 percent of black students. The gap persisted even when household income was taken into account.

The finding is based on a survey of 336 white students and 64 black students in December 1996 and January 1997 as part of a CommerceNet/Nielsen Internet demographic study.

'A Cultural Choice'

"Household income does not explain race differences in home computer ownership," the researchers write. "This is the most disturbing instance yet of when race matters in Internet access."

The study also showed that white students without a computer in the home were more than three times as likely as black students of similar economic status to have used the Internet's World Wide Web in the previous week.

In other words, white students lacking a home computer were more likely than their black peers to access the Web from locations such as homes of friends and relatives, libraries, and community centers. There was no difference in Web use when students had a computer at home.

"In poor communities, technologies like the Internet and high technology are sort of looked at as an alien world, and that is more intense in the African-American communities," said Peter B. Miller, the network director for the Newton, Mass.-based Community Technology Centers' Network. His organization supports community centers that provide computer and Internet access to low-income communities.

"What you put in your home to construct your information environment is a cultural choice. Many African-Americans thought the Internet was not for them," agreed Mark Lloyd, the director of the Civil Rights Forum Communications Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates ways of giving poor people access to telecommunications services.

He clarified, though, that he believes it's the information on the Internet, not necessarily the medium itself, that some blacks find irrelevant.

Few blacks, for the same reason, read The Atlantic Monthly, he said. "The information that's there is not really for us. That doesn't mean that African-Americans and others, once they see what [the Internet] can do for them, won't make use of it," Mr. Lloyd added.

B. Keith Fulton, the director of technology programs and policy for the National Urban League, said he believes the study doesn't reflect the extent to which blacks may be catching up with whites in getting on-line. "White males have been the early adopters," he said. "African-Americans are getting on-line and are going to continue to get on-line."

Fewer Resources

Some observers said black students who lack home computers are less likely to seek out access to the Web because they have fewer places to find it. Mr. Pearce said that in the middle-class black community where he lives--Chicago's Washington Heights--he knows of only two public terminals for Internet access.

"There are certainly more organizations that have these kinds of programs in even poor white communities than in primarily African-American communities," added Mr. Miller of the Community Technology Centers' Network.

Michael Roberts, the director of an information-technology initiative for the United Neighborhood Houses of New York, said the quality of the community computer centers is as important as the quantity.

"If you go into a place where the computers are hand-me-down and the software is slow, people will show up once and not again," he said.

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