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Blaming the Poor as Framing a New Digital Divide

By Justin Reich — May 30, 2012 5 min read
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It’s remarkable that in 2012 you can wake up in the morning and see a front page article in the New York Times depicting young men of color as “freaks” who “throw tantrums” and “do the first negative thing he can find” with computers. #notapostracialsocietyyet

In general, I have a deep ambivalence about the work of the New York Times reporter Matt Ritchel. Richtel writes about the dangers and false promises of education technology. Given the hype and magical thinking that often accompanies descriptions of ed tech and online learning, I welcome a critical voice. Unfortunately, Richtel’s attacks on technology and learning lack nuance and context; they challenge sunny optimism with tales of doom and woe, when what is really needed is balanced analysis.

Parts of Richtel’s article today on “Wasting Time is the New Divide in the Digital Era” resonate quite a bit with my own research on digital inequities, but I find his racialization of the digital divide somewhat troubling, and his depiction of young black men is deeply problematic.

Richtel argues that young people use media more for “time-wasting entertainment” than for useful purposes and that low-income students use more media than wealthier students. Therefore, efforts to increase Internet access and close the digital divide might simply result in low-income children wasting more time. (He draws on this 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.)

Richtel is describing facets of what sociologist Paul Attewell described in 2000 as the “Digital Divide of Usage.” (This is not a “new divide;" researchers have been discussing this for at least a decade.) Attewell argued that while efforts to close the digital divide of access might be seeing some success, the deeper problem was how technology is used in different spaces. Attewell and others documented that low-income students are more likely to use technology with less adult guidance and for less educationally beneficial purposes than their peers in affluent homes and schools. (I give a slightly longer account of this literature in my recent Educational Researcher article.) Attewell argued that simply increasing parity of access without increasing parity in usage and mentorship would simply accelerate these underlying inequities. Richtel echoes these ideas a decade later.

If we can document differences in how low-income students use technology compared to their wealthy peers, the question remains: why do these differences exist?

Richtel’s answers this question with a series of depictions of young black men unable to control their impulses; his work taps into a long history of stereotyping young black men as impulsive, deviant, and dangerous.

Richtel tells four short stories about low-income youth. All of the youth are black and Latino, conflating race with poverty, even though white youth make up a considerable proportion of youth living in poverty. The first story describes a black student who is barely passing in school who stays up all night on Sundays playing video games and is tired in school the next day. The second story is about a Latino student who describes himself as a “Facebook freak.” His mother says she tries to make him do his homework on the computer, but “He’d have a fit. He’d have a tantrum,” Richtel then briefly tells the story of two black girls who received laptops for their good grades, and briefly describes how their parents guide their interest-driven computer use. Richtel then returns to a story of a black male. He recounts a grandmother’s story of how her grandson “once sneaked onto the computer and put a picture of himself on his Facebook page making an obscene gesture.” The article ends with the grandmother saying “If you already have a child who feels like anything goes and you put a computer in his hand, he’s going to do the first negative thing he can find to do when he gets on the computer.”

There are three primary impressions given by this collection of stories. First, poor people are black and Latino. Second, black and Latino male teenagers are incapable of self-regulating their behavior or their use of the Internet. Third, many (though not all) black and Latino parents do not understand technology and are incapable of controlling or guiding their students.

Richtel’s article suggests that the problem with expanding digital access is that young black males lack the capacity to properly use these tools, and many of their parents are incapable of guiding them. (The Twitter stream for “digital divide” today showcases numerous ways of disparaging parents in low-income families in under 140 characters.) I have a different perspective.

I am also deeply concerned with the digital divide of usage, although I don’t believe that the problem lies in fundamental character flaws found in young black men and their parents. The problem has much more to do with profound economic inequality in our society. Affluent kids spend less time with media because their parents can afford to have them do other things: play sports, take music lessons, work with tutors, and participate in other enrichment activities. Affluent students have access to better schools and can more readily see the connection between educational attainment and economic success. Affluent parents can also afford to ensure more constant supervision of children, especially compared to low-income parents who need to work multiple jobs or at night. I do think that digital literacy efforts can play a powerful role in closing the digital divide of usage, but I certainly hope that digital literacy efforts will not begin from the framework of deficiency that Richtel lays out.

Richtel is a white reporter writing for a predominantly white audience who writes an article about digital inequalities quoting a series of white experts and then frames the issue of the digital divide around character deficiencies in young black and Latino males and their parents. This is not the best way to advance our understanding of the complex issues of digital media, digital literacy, and educational inequality.

Fortunately, there are much better alternatives. If you want a terrific examination of the same issues with a much more balanced, nuanced portrayal of the issue, then I’d recommend S. Craig Watkins recent article Digital Divide: Navigating the Digital Edge. Watkins article is more scholarly and less sensational, and ultimately much more enlightening. We do need a broader conversation in society about the importance of new digital literacies and persistent digital inequalities, and there are many better guides to this terrain than Richtel.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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