At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the need to shift to distance learning highlighted an inequality between students that most teachers and educators had been unaware of before: wifi disparity.
Students from lower incomes (predominantly minority students, like Blacks and Latinos) did not have access to quality wifi or broadband internet like their higher-income peers did. The wifi crisis among students of color kicked off a broader discussion among academics and researchers of the so-called “Racial Tech Gap” in America.
A recent study conducted by Deutsche Bank showed that Black and Hispanic communities — especially ones in urban areas — have been lagging at least ten years behind white communities when it comes to technology. And this disparity has been estimated to be going on for the last 20 years.
According to Deutsche Bank, the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the “striking disparity” between the “haves and have nots” in America.
What is the “Racial Tech Gap”?
The Racial Tech Gap is the phenomenon in America in which people of color (almost exclusively Blacks and Latinos) have less access to both high-speed internet and technological hardware (i.e., computers, smartphones, and tablets) than their white peers.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 85% and 86% percent of Blacks and Latinos in America (respectively) regularly use the internet, compared to 92% of white Americans. Additionally, only 66% of Blacks and 61% of Latinos have access to broadband at home than 79% of white people. And while a full 79% of white Americans own a computer or a laptop, only 63% of Hispanics and 45% of Black people do.
The racial tech gap also manifests in the tech hardware’s quality and the internet that minorities can access. Hispanics and Blacks are more likely to own outdated hardware and software and have lower quality broadband.
And while these few percentage points seem negligible to the untrained eye, the repercussions of these numbers — which amount to millions of Americans — or wide-reaching and ultimately, dire.
Why does the Racial Tech Gap matter?
When minorities don’t have access to the same tech as whites do, their chances of getting a quality education and access to better job opportunities are reduced significantly. Studies are already showing that lower-income students are dropping out of higher education institutions at record numbers because their classes now require access to a strong internet connection at home.
Before, students could study or attend online classes in their universities’ libraries or public spaces like coffee shops. But the pandemic has shuttered public spaces, making accessing public wifi all but impossible. The data shows that college dropouts rarely return to finish their schooling.
“Right now, no child can really do research or complete a full homework without going to Google or without having a good research tool, which is usually online. If they rely on the typical encyclopedia, that’s it. You’re outdated,” said the founder of Latinos in Tech, Innovation and Social Media, Ana Roca-Castro, to NPR. “And even for the jobs, I mean, you can’t even get a McDonald’s job without going online and applying online…it affects kids in education, but it also affects adults when it comes to jobs and employment.”
It’s true. 61% of current jobs require a mid-to-high level of digital skills, while estimates predict that number to jump up to 69% in the future. Based on those numbers, Deutsche Bank has estimated that a massive amount of Black and Hispanic Americans could be disqualified or underqualified for 86% of jobs by 2045.
But the fallout isn’t only economic. Lack of access to technology is costing people their lives — a bleak reality that has never been more clear than during the COVID-19 era. According to Deutsche Bank, Black Americans ventured out of their homes 135% times more often than white Americans did at the peak of the “riskiest times” of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Deutsche Bank researchers attributed this movement to “poor access to tech connectivity” and the lack of access to work-from-home jobs — they based this conclusion on the data they collected from the levels of movement pre-COVID-19.
In other words, lack of home internet access may have been one of the contributing factors to the higher COVID-19 related death tolls among Black and Hispanic communities.
How can we fix the racial tech gap?
According to Deutsche Bank Global Technology Strategist Apjit Walia, we must first and foremost fix the vast disparity of hardware ownership in communities of color. According to Walia, for just $1 billion (which is a drop in the ocean considering the federal budget), lower-income families could receive the equipment that they couldn’t otherwise afford. At this point, access to technological hardware like computers or tablets is a utility, not a luxury.
However, experts believe that the hardware problem is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the racial tech gap. Students can only learn tech skills through prolonged exposure to technology. Up to this point, minority students are, by and large, not exposed to coding at a young age as a lot of their white counterparts have been.
According to Walia, this gap can be fixed by extensive, organized intervention around middle-school age. “Most professors we spoke to felt that the digital inequity, which starts early in life, especially middle school, is what sets people back the most in the digital generation,” he told Marketplace. “Provide training for children in middle school and high school on basic computer literacy and coding, we believe that’s the bottom-up way, the holistic way, to start trying to address the divide…”
Experts like Walia believe that closing the digital divide between communities of color could significantly impact both their income and, thus, their quality of life. “Tech today is not just about quality of life,” he recently told the Washington Post. “If you don’t have good tech, it could be a death sentence.”