Black Internet Culture Growing Despite Digital Divide

You probably read the story -- a low-budget movie, using guerrilla marketing techniques, makes a big splash, number one at the box office on the weekend it opens.But the movie is Malcolm Lee's "The Best Man," not "The Blair Witch Project," and it has gone on to gross over $34 million -- despite little media coverage. And a large share of the credit belongs to African Americans on-line who pushed the film.The success of "The Best Man" is a good example of the growing Internet culture within the black community. It offers a sharp contrast to the usual discussions on the subject of African Americans and the Internet which tend to see only the "digital divide" between blacks and whites.This can be traced to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Commerce called "Falling through the Net" which found whites are more likely to access the Internet from home than blacks or Hispanics from any location. The report stated that black and Hispanic households are approximately one-third as likely to have home Internet access as households of people of Asian decent and roughly two-fifths as likely as whites.This set off a frenzy of activity. At the Unity journalism conference -- which drew black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American reporters to Seattle last year -- Vice President Al Gore called the digital divide the nation's number one "civil and economic issue."The Reverend Jesse Jackson jumped in and met with executives in Silicon Valley to address the issue. He has also set up an office there to monitor the situation.And at his last State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton made closing the digital divide one centerpiece of his speech. A few days later he unveiled the "click start" program under which the federal government will issue vouchers to needy families so they can get Internet access.While these words and actions have put a spotlight on the issue, the so-called digital divide is shrinking on a daily basis.A survey by Cyber Dialogue counts close to 5 million black Internet users and the Chicago-based Target Market News reports blacks spent $1.3 billion on computer related products last year, a 143% increase over the previous year."People of color are going on-line in droves, and we are seeing an explosion in this new medium," said David Ellington, who founded Netnoir.com, the first black on-line and multi-media service, in 1995. "The Internet is now becoming relevant in our lives as a result of e-mail and chat sites."The boom in black computer usage is making some analysts question talk of a digital divide. "The numbers show there really isn't a digital divide between blacks and whites," said Ken Smikle, founder of Target Market News.If there is a gap, it is between the haves and the have-nots. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black Washington D.C. based think tank, found that 11% of African American households with incomes under $15,000 reported using the Internet at home or work, while 83% of blacks with incomes over $90,000 used the Internet -- a higher percentage than whites at that income level.Such studies are rarely echoed when there is talk about the digital divide. Instead the focus has been on dis-empowering people. "Some of this rhetoric is positioning African Americans, in need of help," said Ellington. "And personally, I believe that black people have proven that when technology becomes relevant to us, we embrace it."If there is a problem, it is one that needs to be addressed by all Americans as the country moves into becoming one driven by technology. As computer prices drop, blacks and other people will jump on-line in record numbers.This will shatter the digital divide that politicians talk about, but rarely explore.

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