Education Opinion

Black And Unplugged

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. — March 01, 2000 7 min read
Net promoters nationwide are right to be concerned that the digital divide threatens to become a 21st-century poll tax.

Following the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina, the largest uprising of slaves in the colonies before the American Revolution, legislators there responded by banishing two forms of literacy crucial to the slaves: the mastery of letters and the mastery of talking drums. Both had been pivotal to the slave’s capacity to rebel.

For the next century and a half, access to literacy, then, became for the slaves a hallmark of their humanity and a tool to their own liberation, a liberation of the spirit as well as the body. The relation between freedom and literacy became the compelling theme of the slave narratives, the great body of printed books that ex-slaves generated to pronounce their common humanity with white Americans and to indict the system that had oppressed them. In the century and a third since the abolition of slavery, the possession of literacy—mastering the master’s tools to dismantle, or reconstruct, the master’s house—has been a cardinal value of the African American tradition. It is no accident that the first great victory in the legal battle over segregation was fought on the grounds of education, of equal access to the written word.

Today, however, blacks are facing a new form of denial to the tools of literacy, this time in the guise of access to the digital-knowledge economy. And while the dilemma that our ancestors so passionately confronted was imposed by others, this form of cyber-segregation is, to a surprising degree, self-imposed.

The government’s latest attempt to understand why low-income African Americans and Hispanics are slower to embrace the Internet and personal computers than whites suggests that income alone cannot be blamed for the so-called “digital divide.” The U.S. Department of Commerce’s recent study Falling Through the Net looked at families earning $15,000 to $35,000 annually and discovered that more than 33 percent of whites own computers, compared with only 19 percent of African Americans—a gap that has widened by 64 percent over the past five years despite declining computer prices.

These implications go far beyond online trading and chat rooms. Net promoters nationwide are right to be concerned that the digital divide threatens to become a 21st-century poll tax that, de facto, disenfranchises a third of the nation. Our children, especially, need access not only to the vast resources technology offers for education but also to the multicultural context that defines their place in the world. Today we stand at the brink of becoming two societies: one largely white and plugged in, the other, black and unplugged.

One of the most tragic aspects of slavery was its devastating ability to sever social connections. In a process that the sociologist Orlando Patterson calls “social death,” slavery sought to disconnect blacks from their history and culture, from family ties and a sense of community. De jure segregation, following the Civil War, sought to disconnect blacks from equal economic opportunity, from the network of social contacts that enable upward mobility, and indeed, from the broader world of ideas.

As the black middle class has grown so dramatically since the onset of affirmative action in the late ‘60s, new forms of disconnectedness have afflicted the black community. Middle-class professionals often feel socially and culturally isolated from their white peers, at work and in their neighborhoods, as well as from their black peers left behind in the underclass.

For their part, the children of the black underclass often lack middle-class role models to help them connect to ideas, to an awareness of our people’s past so that they can draw a sense of identity from the accomplishments of our history and culture, to people they can emulate, to mentors and peers who share their interests and can help facilitate their goals, and to the crucial capacity to express ideas and receive feedback, a process that develops analytical skills.

The Clinton administration is determined to see that every school system in the nation has access to the World Wide Web. Providing online access for all Americans regardless of income is surely part of the structural answer to this digital divide. But the Commerce Department study suggests the solution will require more than cheap PCs, as crucial as they are.

One possible solution is the content of the information available on the Internet. Until recently, the African American presence on the Internet was minimal, reflecting the chicken-and-egg nature of online economics. Despite sites such as BlackVoices.com and Afro Net, relatively few investors have been willing to fund sites appealing to a PC-scarce community. (A notable exception is Black Entertainment Television’s soon-to-be-launched portal, backed with $35 million by Liberty Digital, News Corp., USA Networks, and Microsoft.) Few African Americans have been compelled to sign on to a medium that offers little to interest them. And educators have repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of strong technology-based educational resources for multicultural education.

The problem is somewhat analogous to the birth of the recording industry in the 1920s. Blacks began to respond to this new medium only when mainstream companies such as Columbia Records introduced “race records"—blues and jazz disks targeted at a nascent black market. Blacks who would never have dreamed of spending hard-earned money for a record by Rudy Vallee or Kate Smith would stand in lines several blocks long to purchase the new Bessie Smith or Duke Ellington hit. New content made the new medium attractive. The growth of Web sites dedicated to the interests and needs of black consumers can play the same role for the Web that race records did for the recording industry.

But even targeted content can only go so far. More scholars are admitting that the causes of poverty are both structural and behavioral. And it is the behavioral aspect of this failure to utilize the tremendous opportunities which Internet access affords that blacks, themselves, are best able to address.

We need a revolution in our people’s attitudes toward education, in the literal sense of that word’s etymology, which suggests a return. When we were growing up in the ‘50s, the blackest thing that we could aspire to be was a lawyer like Thurgood Marshall, an educator like Mary McLeod Bethune, or a doctor like Charles Drew. And while we reveled in the achievements in the arena, on the court, and on the playing field of heroes such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Althea Gibson, and Willie Mays, and lived and died with their victories and defeats, we were taught that the serious business of civil rights demanded of us a commitment to excellence in the classroom.

Too many of our children have lost this determination to fight racism, at all costs and against the odds, by acquiring knowledge.

Far too many of our children have lost this determination to fight racism, at all costs and against the odds, by acquiring knowledge—a passion that fired our generation. Far too many believe it easier to become a professional athlete than a member of a profession such as law or medicine, when statistically the reverse is true. There are far more Vernon Jordans than Michael Jordans—by a factor of 10.

And a large part of the responsibility to reverse this dangerous and debilitating tendency must be borne by blacks ourselves. As other ethnic groups have done in this country, we must develop community-generated after-school programs that supplement public education by teaching the history and culture of our own people as well as information technology.

Drawing upon corporate and foundation support, we can transform available facilities in the legion of churches, mosques, and community centers in our inner cities into after-school programs that focus on redressing the digital divide and teaching black history, drawing upon the many examples of black achievement in highly structured classes to re-establish a sense of social connection with our community’s triumphant past. This, in turn, could very well regenerate the love of learning that was at the heart of both the abolitionist and the civil rights movements.

The Internet is the 21st century’s talking drum, a high-tech grapevine, the very kind of grassroots communication that has been such a powerful source of education and culture for our people since slavery. But this talking drum we have not yet learned to play.

Make no mistake about it: Unless we utilize the new information technology to build and deepen the forms of social connection that slavery, a century of segregation, and subsequent class divisions within the black community have severed, African Americans will face a form of cyber-segregation in the coming century just as devastating to the aspirations of the black community in its way as Jim Crow segregation was to our ancestors. But this time, the fault will be our own.