Severe lack of infrastructure contributes to a “digital divide” in many southern states that most impacts rural Black Americans, according to an October 2021 study produced by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES). Avi Asher-Schapiro and David Sherfinski of the Thomas Reuters Foundation News and Javeria Salman of the Hechinger Report published pieces on this “digital divide” and the extent of its impact on Black Americans’ lives and well-being.
Dominique Harrison, the JCPES study’s author, told Asher-Schapiro and Sherfinski in October 2021 that “despite constant conversations about rural access to broadband in the US, most of it is focused on white rural residents.” Harrison’s study found that, across 152 counties in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, Black Americans were ten times more likely not to have internet access than white Americans in those same counties. Specifically, 38 percent of Black Americans in those counties reported that they lacked home internet access, while only 23 percent of white Americans in those same areas said the same.
The lack of infrastructure and financial resources available to these areas contribute to this digital divide. Hazel Levy of the University of Florida told the Hechinger Report that there were “actually access allocation issues. . . . That’s not simply these access gaps that just naturally happen, that access is actually allocated.”
Salman’s Hechinger Report article outlined the historical background to these current access gaps. As she reminded readers, Depression-era federal housing policies denied mortgage guarantees to majority-Black neighborhoods by classifying them as “high risk,” a practice known as redlining. Researchers from the University of Florida who examined the links between disparities in current broadband access and past discriminatory federal housing policies found that “despite internet service providers reporting similar technological availability across neighborhoods, access to broadband in the home generally decreases in tandem with historic neighborhood risk classification.”
Inadequate access to broadband can have dire consequences. Nicol Turner Lee, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, explained to Asher-Schapiro and Sherfinski that lack of broadband access “undermines everything [for the underserved], from those seeking jobs to those seeking public benefits to healthcare access—it’s the whole nine yards.”
Asher-Schapiro and Sherfinski noted that President Biden’s infrastructure bill earmarks $65 billion for expanding broadband access, making it “the biggest broadband investment in our history to close the digital divide,” according to Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO). On November 15, 2021, Biden signed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law.
Although many news outlets have reported on America’s digital divide, corporate news sources, such as the New York Times and CNN, have not addressed the deep historical roots of disparities in broadband access. The Chicago Sun-Times published a May 17, 2022, commentary about digital redlining of Chicago’s Black neighborhoods. But no big corporate news organizations appear to have covered digital redlining affecting Black communities in the South, even as it relates to the infrastructure bill.
Avi Asher-Schapiro and David Sherfinski, “‘Digital Divide’ Hits Rural Black Americans Hardest,” Thomson Reuters Foundation News, October 6, 2021.
Javeria Salman, “Racial Segregation Is One Reason Some Families Have Internet Access and Others Don’t, New Research Finds,” The Hechinger Report, October 14, 2021.
Student Researchers: Payton Blair, Milan Spellman, and Emmanuel Thomas (Loyola Marymount University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kyra Pearson (Loyola Marymount University)