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Education

Racial Disparities

By Karla Scoon Reid — May 10, 2001 6 min read
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The digital divide, in its simplest definition, is a matter of dollars and cents: The less money you have, the less likely you are to own or use a computer. space delete xx That fact helps explain why African American, Hispanic, and American Indian students—many of whom come from families with limited means—tend to have less access to computers, and to use them in less sophisticated ways, than their white classmates.

But money doesn’t tell the whole story, many researchers and educators believe.

Even when income is taken into account, white students are still more likely than their black peers to have a computer at home, according to a 1998 study conducted by two Vanderbilt University researchers. And of the white students who didn’t have a computer at home, 38 percent had used the Internet at some other location within the past six months, compared with just 16 percent of black students who lacked a home computer, the study found.

Another study, released last year, found that although computer access at school was improving for some racial and ethnic groups, African-American and Hispanic students don’t log on to the Internet as often as their white classmates. Only 15 percent of the African-American students who were studied, and just 12 percent of the Hispanic students, used the Internet at all, compared with 21 percent of white students.

“There’s a racial line and not just a class line” in technology use, says Princeton University professor Alan B. Krueger, who conducted the study.

Those findings suggest that race and ethnicity matter when it comes to the technology gap, and that closing the digital divide is more complex than providing all students with computers.

“It’s not simply a matter of getting people’s hands on technology—in a sense, that’s the easy part,” says Laura Jeffers, a senior research associate for the Center for Children and Technology, located in New York City. “Context is critical. The environment, the expectations, and what people bring to [technology] play major roles in what access really means on the ground.”

Digital Racism?

There’s no clear reason for the racial and ethnic disparities, but some possible factors include discrimination, minority students’ relative lack of exposure to computers, and a dearth of racially and ethnically diverse content on the Internet.

Herbert Kohl, the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco, believes that “covert racism” limits what children of color are allowed to achieve using computers.

Kohl, who has visited classrooms in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and southern Texas in recent years, says students in schools with predominantly minority enrollments are more likely to use their state-of- the-art technology for drill, practice, and test-taking skills. Meanwhile, white students in more affluent communities are creating Web sites and multimedia presentations.

“The computers become nothing much more than trivial workbook and control mechanisms for kids” in the heavily minority schools, Kohl contends. “In other communities, they are instruments used toward the success and the futures of kids.”

Edward L. Bouie, the executive director of information systems for the DeKalb County schools in Decatur, Ga., says he has seen the same phenomenon in his 96,000-student district.

“Technology is just another way to manifest attitudes that have existed for years about children and the type of instruction certain children receive, and the kind of courses certain children are allowed to take,” Bouie says.

Bouie, who runs an after-school computer program for parents in DeKalb County, adds that teachers who are skilled at integrating technology into the curriculum usually work at schools in affluent communities, not those with high percentages of lower-income minority students.

At poorer schools with predominantly minority enrollments, technology often isn’t a high priority, says James L. Smith, the chairman of the Minority Leadership Symposium for the International Society for Technology in Education, based in Eugene, Ore.

A National Center for Education Statistics study last year found that 45 percent of teachers in schools that served predominantly minority students used computers or the Internet for instruction during class, compared with 56 percent of their colleagues in schools with few minority students.

“It takes more time to put technology into a lesson,” says Smith, a program specialist for the education technology department of the Olympia, Wash., schools. “Schools targeted for poor performance are dealing with other issues. Technology is last on the totem pole.”

Wanted: Spanish-Speaking Teachers

Schools have a critical need for more minority and Spanish-speaking computer instructors to make minority students more comfortable using technology, adds Elsa E. Macias, the project director for information- technology research at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a Claremont, Calif.-based think tank that studies Latino issues.

“Culturally, who are you going to turn to?” she says. “Someone who looks like me and speaks my language.”

Once people understand the value of computers, they tend to seek out opportunities to log on, says Anthony G. Wilhelm, the director of the communications and policy program at the Washington-based Benton Foundation, which advocates ways to close the digital divide.

But gaining that understanding is difficult, he says, if people have little experience with computers. That situation will change as they are exposed to family members, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers who are using technology, Wilhelm says.

Community-based organizations and churches, which are prime gathering places for many blacks and Hispanics, need to tap into technology, says John Villamil, the vice president and chief information officer of aspira, a Washington-based national nonprofit organization devoted to the education and leadership development of Latino youths.

“We go where they are,” says Villamil, who supervises aspira’s 45 community technology centers nationwide. “It’s a matter of building trust.”

The growth of more content on the Internet that takes minorities’ interests into account also will help, Wilhelm adds. “The Internet doesn’t look like America, yet,” he says.

Encouraging Signs

Villamil is encouraged that bilingual and Spanish-language Web sites are on the rise, but he says Hispanics can be turned off when word processing software rejects Spanish names as spelling errors. Some Hispanic parents with limited English skills, meanwhile, are reluctant to let their children use the Internet for fear of losing control over them, Macias adds.

Still, there are signs that technology is starting to take hold in minority communities. Market studies show significant increases in the purchase and use of computers by African-Americans and Hispanics as technology costs decline.

“African-Americans have proven time and again that they are willing to adopt new technology, but only at affordable price points,” says Barry Cooper, the founder and chief executive officer of Black Voices, an online community designed for African-Americans.

And at the Milwaukee Education Center Accelerated Middle School, which serves 900 predominantly black and Hispanic students, computer teacher Marvin Bell says technology is motivating his students to learn and be creative. The students routinely develop PowerPoint research presentations; last year, they used computers to create a board game based on the Underground Railroad.

Bell, who runs a summer education program that lends students laptops, says his students’ enthusiasm for computers is having a positive influence at home. He makes technology house calls to help students and their parents connect their computers or install software.

“More and more [parents] are grudgingly making the purchase,” Bell says. “ Throw in a couple of pairs of Michael Jordan [sneakers] and Coach bags, and you’ve bought yourself a computer. And it lasts longer, because children’s feet are going to grow.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Racial Disparities

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