Donna Hoffman & Thomas Novak's claim of enormous disparities in Internet
access between black and white Americans in the winter of 1996-97,
published in the April 17 edition of Science Magazine, has received a great
deal of attention over the last week. These figures contrast sharply with
more recent data analyzed by the Baruch College/Louis Harris Survey Unit in
the April/May issue of The Public Perspective.
Who is right? Both groups. The big difference is the 13-14 months
separating the collection dates. We collected similar numbers during the
same period, but the 'net has about doubled in size since then, spurting
from roughly 30 million users to more than 65 million users today. To put
this in perspective, we'd have to go back to 1930 to find the last time the
US general population was the same 46% of the present population. Plainly,
the US hasn't just grown since then; subgroup representation has changed in
myriad ways. The same is true of the 'net.
Our studies show that in September '95, <14 million Americans used the
Internet, most of them white, male, and upper-income. Men still outnumber
women, but the gap has narrowed from 77% vs. 24% to 54% vs. 46%. There are
no significant disparities in basic Internet usage across racial categories.
Now 75% of adult Internet users are non-Hispanic whites, exactly their
percentage of the population. Currently, blacks make up 11% of adult
Americans and 11% of Internet users while Hispanics make up 8% of the US
adult population and 9% of Internet users.
There are no statistically significant disparities among whites, blacks,
and Hispanics in basic computer and Internet use. 62% of white Americans
use a computer, so do 57% of blacks and 65% of Hispanics. 34% of whites
access the Internet, as do 32% of both blacks and Hispanics.
Troubling disparities remain among age groups, income levels, and
educational attainment, but these differences have narrowed in every
category since we began our surveys.
The Vanderbilt researchers have produced an admirable analysis of the
state of access 15-16 months ago. They provide useful insight into
variables underdeveloped in previous analyses. And they acknowledge that
newer numbers would look different from what has been reported in the last
week ("We would expect that many more African-Americans will be on line
when we look at the more recent numbers." Novak quoted in the NYT, 23
April, G8). But the thoroughness of their work and the attention it has
received should not lead anyone to assume that today's Internet looks like
last year's Internet.
Jillaine Smith, Senior Associate (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Benton Foundation (www.benton.org)
1634 Eye Street NW, Washington DC 20006
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