October 31, 1999
One Internet, Two Nations
By HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.
AMBRIDGE, Mass. -- After the Stono Rebellion of
1739 in South Carolina -- the largest uprising of slaves in
the colonies before
the American Revolution -- legislators there responded
by banishing two forms of communication among the slaves: the mastery of reading and writing, and the
mastery of "talking drums," both of
which had been crucial to the capacity to rebel.
For the next century and a half,
access to literacy became for the
slaves a hallmark of their humanity
and an instrument of liberation, spiritual as well as physical. The relation between freedom and literacy
became the compelling theme of the
slave narratives, the great body of
printed books that ex-slaves generated to assert their common humanity with white Americans and to
indict the system that had oppressed
In the years since the abolition of
slavery, the possession of literacy
has been a cardinal value of the
It is no
accident that the first great victory
in the legal battle over segregation
was fought on the grounds of education -- of equal access to literacy.
Today, blacks are failing to gain
access to the new tools of literacy:
the digital "knowledge economy."
And while the dilemma that our ancestors confronted was imposed by
others, this cybersegregation is, to a
large degree, self-imposed.
The Government's latest attempt
to understand why low-income African-Americans and Hispanics are
slower to embrace the Internet and
the personal computer than whites
-- the Commerce Department study
"Falling Through the Net" -- suggests that income alone can't be
blamed for the so-called digital divide. For example, among families
earning $15,000 to $35,000 annually,
more than 33 percent of whites own
computers, compared with only 19
percent of African-Americans -- a
gap that has widened 64 percent
over the past five years despite declining computer prices.
The implications go far beyond on-line trading and chat rooms. Net
promoters are concerned that the
digital divide threatens to become a
21st century poll tax that, in effect,
disenfranchises a third of the nation.
Our children, especially, need access
not only to the vast resources that
technology offers for education, but
also to the rich cultural contexts that
define their place in the world.
Today we stand at the brink of
becoming two societies, one largely
white and plugged in and the other
black and unplugged.
One of the most tragic aspects of
slavery was the way it destroyed
In a process that
the sociologist Orlando Patterson
calls "social death," slavery sought
to sever blacks from their history
and culture, from family ties and a
sense of community. And, of course,
de jure segregation after the Civil
War was intended to disconnect
blacks from equal economic opportunity, from the network of social
contacts that enable upward mobility and, indeed, from the broader
world of ideas.
Despite the dramatic growth of
the black middle class since affirmative action programs were started in the late 60's, new forms of
disconnectedness have afflicted
black America. Middle-class professionals often feel socially and culturally isolated from their white peers
at work and in the neighborhood and
from their black peers left behind in
the underclass. The children of the
black underclass, in turn, often lack
middle-class role models to help
them connect to a history of achievement and develop their analytical
It would be a sad irony if the most
diverse and decentralized electronic
medium yet invented should fail to
achieve ethnic diversity among its
users. And yet the Commerce Department study suggests that the
solution will require more than
cheap PC's. It will involve content.
Until recently, the African-American presence on the Internet was
minimal, reflecting the chicken-and-egg nature of Internet economics.
Few investors have been willing to
finance sites appealing to a PC-scarce community.
Few African-Americans have been compelled to
sign on to a medium that offers little
to interest them.
And educators interested in diversity have repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of
minority-oriented educational software.
onsider the birth of the
recording industry in
the 1920's. Blacks began to respond to this
new medium only
companies like Columbia Records
introduced so-called race records,
blues and jazz discs aimed at a
nascent African-American market.
Blacks who would never have
dreamed of spending hard-earned
funds for a record by Rudy Vallee or
Kate Smith would stand in lines several blocks long to purchase the new
Bessie Smith or Duke Ellington hit.
New content made the new medium attractive.
And the growth of
Web sites dedicated to the interests
and needs of black Americans can
play the same role for the Internet
that race records did for the music
But even making sites that will
appeal to a black audience can only
go so far.
The causes of poverty are
both structural and behavioral.
it is the behavioral aspect of this
cybersegregation that blacks themselves are best able to address.
Drawing on corporate and foundation support, we can transform the
legion of churches, mosques and
community centers in our inner cities into after-school centers that focus on redressing the digital divide
and teaching black history. We can
draw on the many examples of black
achievement in structured classes
to re-establish a sense of social connection.
The Internet is the 21st century's
talking drum, the very kind of
grass-roots communication tool that
has been such a powerful source of
education and culture for our people
since slavery. But this talking drum
we have not yet learned to play.
Unless we master the new information technology to build and deepen
the forms of social connection that a
tragic history has eroded, African-Americans will face a form of cybersegregation in the next century as
devastating to our aspirations as
Jim Crow segregation was to those
of our ancestors.
But this time, the
fault will be our own.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard University, is co-editor of Encarta Africana.