At last, blacks making inroads on information superhighway


Richard Pryor once joked that movies about the future made him nervous because the future didn't seem to include black people.

Until recently the same could be said for the computer revolution. In all the talk about modems and megabytes, African-Americans were conspicuously absent.

But that's changing. More black people are going on-line for a variety of reasons -- economic, political and cultural. And some simply find computers fascinating.

"When you explain what this technology is capable of, all people want to join in," said Delores Davis-Penn, a gerontologist at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. "Information is power, and computers give you access to information from around the world."

Indeed, the allure of high-tech communication -- the so-called information superhighway -- can be extremely appealing.

"I love computers," said Darnell Busch, a Kansas City, Mo., systems analyst and computer consultant. "Especially the Internet. You can go to another world by sitting at your machine -- and I like the journey."

While it's true that fewer blacks own computers than any other racial group, the use of computers by African-Americans has been increasing steadily. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce study in July, 11.8 percent of blacks in urban households owned computers, compared with 13.2 percent of Hispanics and 30.3 percent of whites.

But according to an October 1993 study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, computer use by blacks 18 and older about doubled -- to 25 percent -- in a decade.

A recent increase in on-line sites devoted to African-American culture also indicates that the complexion of cyberspace is changing. Afrinet, on the World Wide Web, is an electronic gathering place for information and also lists other black-oriented sites.

"Believe me, the black folks who are on-line are very active and communicate all the time," said E. David Ellington, president of NetNoir Inc., a San Francisco-based media company with a site on America On-Line.

The information highway has its downside, however. Some advocates for minorities and poor people fear that telecommunications companies will steer the highway -- and access to its benefits -- clear of disadvantaged areas. Those communities would in effect be denied access to the communications network -- whatever that might look like in the future. This, critics say, would perpetuate inequities in education and jobs in a process that has already been dubbed "electronic redlining."

The issue isn't whether black youth can adapt to technology, Mr. Ellington said. It's a matter of convincing them it's worth the effort.

"When black kids start to understand it, they have no fear. They surf the Net like the best pro."

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