Detroit’s digital divide not due to race

February 19, 2004

ANN ARBOR—The digital divide in the Detroit area?one of the most racially segregated regions in the country?is based not on race but disparities in income, say University of Michigan researchers.

“African Americans are not significantly less likely than others to use a computer,” said Wayne Baker, professor of management and organizations at the Michigan Business School and faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). “Moreover, race does not predict either the number of computers used at home or the frequency of computer use. While some analysts of the digital divide might expect otherwise, race appears not to be the crucial variable in structuring Detroit’s digital divide.”

Using data from the 2003 Detroit Area Study, Baker and colleague Kenneth Coleman, an ISR faculty associate in the Center for Political Studies, found that 75 percent of residents in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties use a computer and 68 percent use the Internet.

The researchers found that computer and Internet usage has a positive impact on social interaction. For example, users of e-mail are nearly three times as likely to visit the home of someone from a different neighborhood and 1.5 times as likely to socialize with someone of a different race.

“This suggests that the new information and communication technologies may help to overcome the barriers of race and space, even in an urban system that is as severely segregated as the Detroit region,” Baker said. “In contrast, the ‘old’ communication technologies (like telephones) do not appear to have an influence.”

According to the study, 67 percent of African Americans (compared with 78 percent of whites and other groups) use a computer and 53 percent use the Internet (compared with 73 percent of whites and other groups). Both of the percentages for computer and Internet use are above the national averages of 56 percent and 40 percent, respectively, for African Americans.

Income, however, is the single biggest predictor of computer and Internet usage in the Detroit area, the researchers say.

“From the lowest income category of under $20,000 through the highest of more than $50,000, the growth in computer and Internet usage is quite dramatic,” Coleman said. “More than three times as many in the highest income group connect to the Internet, compared to those in the lowest group.”

Among those earning less than $20,000, roughly 35 percent use a computer and 23 percent use the Internet, while among those making at least $50,000, more than 80 percent use a computer and the Internet, the study shows.

Like income, education plays a significant role in contributing to the digital divide, the researchers say. More than 90 percent of college graduates use a computer and the Internet, while only about 40 percent of those without a high school diploma use either. A little more than half of high school graduates use a computer and just under half use the Internet.

Perhaps not surprisingly, about 83 percent of metro Detroiters ages 18-54 use a computer and roughly 80 percent of this group use the Internet. On the other hand, a much smaller 53 percent of those 55 and older use a computer and only 40 percent of this older age group use the Internet.

Baker and Coleman also analyzed 10 different Internet activities of Detroit-area computer Web users and found few significant differences among African Americans and other Internet users or between Detroit and suburban residents.

They did find, however, that African Americans are four times more likely to use the Internet to look for a new job or to explore career opportunities and five times more likely to use it to interactively discuss political and social issues. But African Americans are less likely than whites and others to participate in online chat rooms.

“These findings about African Americans using the Internet for employment and career searches suggest that the Internet may be a means to overcome racial and residential barriers,” Coleman said.

This pattern of usage, the researchers say, is crucial in an area that lacks an effective public transportation system to connect the suburbs with the inner city.

“Knowing where the jobs are is essential to pursuing jobs,” Baker said. “A significant part of social exclusion is employment-based. The Internet appears already, in metropolitan Detroit, to be affording a tool with which to attack this dimension of social exclusion.”