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. This divide has widened dramatically since the start of the pandemic, providing yet more evidence of how systemic racism affects Black communities in the United States. Dominique Harrison, the study’s author, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in October 2021 that “despite constant conversations about rural access to broadband in the U.S., most of it is focused on white rural residents.” The 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 African 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.
Lack of infrastructure and financial resources available to these areas contribute to this “digital divide.” The Thomson Reuters Foundation that passage of a $1.75 trillion infrastructure bill would direct $65 billion to expanding broadband access, making it “the biggest broadband investment in our history to close the digital divide,” according to US Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO). (In November, 2021 the House of Representatives passed this bill, the Build Back Better Act—but it stalled in the Senate when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) withdrew his support.)
Javeria Salman reported for the Hechinger Report on the historical background to the current “digital divide.” Her article showed how Depression-era federal housing policies, including especially the discriminatory practice of “redlining,” directly correlate with places that, today, lack good internet access. Researchers from the University of Florida who have examined the links between disparities in current broadband access and past discriminatory federal housing policies told the Hechinger Report 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.”
Although many news outlets have reported on the United States’ “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.
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)