Victimology and the Phony 'Digital Divide'

Minorities don't have opportunities to benefit from technology, and it's racist to suggest otherwise.  That is the only lesson to be drawn from the racially charged tempest unleashed by the infamous Forbes article "If I Were a Poor Black Kid."

The author, Gene Marks, made the point that if he were a poor black kid, he'd be using the internet to learn more and find job opportunities.  For suggesting that poor black youth have the power to improve their own lives, Marks was treated like a villain by many liberals for lacking "empathy," and worse.  Such is the wretched state of racial politics today.

The criticisms of Marks's piece had two common themes: black kids are too poor to have computers or internet access, and Marks does not know what it's like to be black.  These criticisms are misguided for two reasons.  First, 78% of black youths (8-18 years old) have internet access in their home, according to a recent Northwestern University report.  Second, it is absurd to say that you must share racial membership with a group in order to criticize some element of  that group's behavior.

To begin with, there is no "digital divide."  The notion that black youths generally do not have internet access is a myth.  In fact, if liberals really cared about the experience of young blacks, they would know that 89% of black youths have a computer in their home and that 78% have internet access.  That is only 10% less than white youth's internet access, which is 88%.  Before you infer discrimination or disadvantage from that 10% disparity, consider something astonishing: 90% of black youths have cable/satellite TV in their homes, compared with 83% of whites.  Sixty-three percent of blacks have premium channels versus 43% of whites.  Thus, there is a 10% white advantage in internet access, but 20% more blacks have access to cable/premium channels.  Before we bemoan a lack of resources, we should consider how people are able to prioritize cable TV, even premium access, over internet access.

Following are other findings from the Northwestern study, which is probably the best factual basis for talking about what sort of technological access various racial groups have.  Consider these "advantages" that black youth have: blacks, on average, have more TVs, DVDs, VCRs, and videogame consoles in their homes than whites.  Whites have more computers, CD players, and radios.

The greatest refutation of the digital divide is found in young people's bedrooms.  As stated in the study, black youths are more likely than any other racial group to have TVs in their bedrooms (84%), compared to whites and Asians (64%).  Incredibly, minority youths are more likely to have "cable and premium channels" in their bedroom (42% of blacks, 28% of Hispanics, 17% of whites, 14% of Asians).

In their bedrooms, black youths are also more likely to have DVD/VCR players, and more likely to have a videogame system than their white peers.  Black youths are twice as likely to have TiVo/DVR access as are whites (20% to 8%).  Black youths are more likely to have internet access in their bedroom than whites (33% versus 29%).  A slightly higher percentage of black children have a computer in their room compared to white children (34% of blacks, and 32% of whites).

When it comes to ownership, a higher percentage of black children (33%) have their own laptop than do white children (24%).  Seventy-two percent of black youth own a cell phone, versus 63% of whites.  Blacks have almost the exact same ownership rate of handheld game-players and iPods as do whites.  The Northwestern study found that overall, minorities spend 4½ more hours per day than whites using computers, mobile devices, and other media.

When someone says that poor black kids don't have "access" to technological resources, he's probably making things up.  Different racial groups evidently have different preferences and priorities when it comes to purchasing gadgets.  If some groups have less internet access, that is not the fault of society; it is largely the product of the predominant culture within that subgroup of society.  We've seen the extraordinary dedication and destructive energy which some young people put into acquiring things like expensive Nike shoes.  Black youth, like all youth,  have the capacity to plan and obtain a cheap resource like internet access.  They could follow Marks's advice, if they chose to.

The second criticism of Marks' article is even more irrational than the first.  A typical perspective offered by liberals is that Marks has "never known the experience of a kid" in the ghetto.  In other words, you have to share racial membership with a group in order to criticize that group.  But if you have to share racial membership with a group in order to criticize that group, then miorities  should never be allowed to criticize whites.  Liberals don't really mean that you have to have "known the experience" of the group that you criticize.  What liberals mean is that some groups are officially designated victim groups, to be excused for every failing, no matter how inexcusable their behavior -- and inexcusable is the only way to describe the failure to graduate from high school in modern America.

Liberals want designated victim groups to be on a moral pedestal, immune from any criticism, while they blame "society" for their problems in life. Minorities are allowed to describe  non-minorities's motives, attitudes, behavior, and institutions, but non-blacks are not allowed to return the favor.  There is hypocrisy inherent in this rule of multicultural etiquette.  Race-baiters like Dr. Boyce Watkins and his ideological ilk have "never known the experience" of white people.  Yet, they pass judgment on every facet of white attitudes and behavior, going so far as to call Marks's article "racist" for suggesting that poor blacks could improve themselves by doing a few simple things.  There is an extraordinary sense of entitlement present in this attitude, which reserves for minorities the right to be seen as perpetual victims, while no one else is allowed to offer criticism of their never-ending state of victimhood.

This unreasonable attitude is, of course, a product of our national obsession with multiculturalism.  Multiculturalism has forced us to believe that some people's opinions are valuable simply because of their skin color.  Multiculturalism is therefore in conflict with Dr. Martin Luther King's call to judge people not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  Liberalism demands that we judge people according to their group identity, victim status, socioeconomic level -- anything but their character. As a result, there is preferential treatment for minorities in hiring, school admissions, and even in the give-and-take of life advice, as the Marks controversy showed.

If a middle-aged white man is prohibited, by reason of his race and social standing, from commenting on other group's behavior, then non-whites should not be allowed to say that Marks wrote a "racist" piece.  Let's see if liberals, of all races, are comfortable with that extension of their racial logic.

John Bennett (MA, University of Chicago, MAPSS '07) is a veteran, writer, and a law student at Emory University living in Atlanta, GA.