Racial segregation is one reason some families have internet access and others don’t, new study finds

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As online schooling plays an increasingly important role in education, researchers say more work needs to be done to understand and address the reasons why some families have a harder time accessing the internet.

A new study shows that one of the reasons is racial segregation.

Since before the pandemic, Benjamin Skinner has researched broadband access and the impact of the lack of internet at home on the ability of students to work online. While studying this digital divide, Skinner, an assistant professor of higher education and politics at the University of Florida, noticed that the conversation around the issue is often presented as an urban-rural divide. What nobody talks about enough is that “we also have a digital divide in suburban and urban areas,” he said.

“There is a digital divide in areas that are quite close geographically and they have real potential impacts on the geography of student opportunities,” Skinner said.

Last summer, Skinner and his colleagues at the University of Florida, faculty member Hazel Levy and doctoral student Taylor Burtch, began researching the history of broadband and differences in access. In a new article, “Digital Redlining: The relevance of 20th Century Housing Policy to 21st Century Broadband Access and Education,” the co-authors link disparities in current broadband access to the Depression-era federal housing policies that prevented predominantly black neighborhoods to get mortgages because their neighborhoods were considered “high risk”. At the same time, the government helped developers build new suburban housing estates exclusively for whites. The policy, known as redlining, fueled racial segregation and long-term divestment in black communities.

“It’s important for us in educational research to examine this story,” Skinner said. “Why could that be the case, and be able to link that to stories of redlining, stories of federal housing policies, of segregation.”

The researchers found evidence that “despite Internet service providers reporting similar technological availability in neighborhoods, home broadband access generally declines along with the neighborhood’s historical risk classification.” Their research also found that the differences in broadband vary based on race, ethnicity, and income levels.

“Students can live across the street from each other, can live right down the street from the university, down the street from the school and not have [internet] access, ”Skinner said.

As the Hechinger report showed, in many cases the shift to distance learning has worsened existing inequalities – none more pronounced than the digital divide. Almost 17 million children across the country were excluded from online learning because they did not have access to the high-speed home Internet needed to participate. Many of these students came from low-income Black, Latin American and Native American families.

Skinner argues that the US government should recognize the role it has played in these disparities.

“It’s not that people still live in these neighborhoods and that there are differences and it’s that kind of choice, or some sort of thing that’s happening. We want to put active ownership on these policies, ”he said. “It is important for policy makers now that if federal politics were part of the segregation implementation during this period, there is a responsibility on their behalf to fix, to help improve some of these things. now. These things being the disparities we see in the visual and digital divide. “

Levy, co-author of the article, said their research adds another element to existing studies on access gaps.

“There are actually access allocation issues,” Levy said. “It’s not just these access gaps that naturally occur, that access is actually allocated. That there is an infrastructure in this allocated access, which can be reinforced over long periods of time.

In their research, Skinner and colleagues used broadband access data available through the FCC and the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), in addition to the digitized versions of the original maps from the Mapping Inequality Project.

They note that policymakers cannot rely on a single source of data to measure current broadband access nationwide. It’s hard to discern the differences between certain neighborhoods just looking at the FCC data, Skinner said. However, the disconnect becomes evident when looking at census data, which specifically asks people “do you have broadband access in your home”.

This difference between what FCC data reports and what ACS data reports makes it difficult to craft a market-based solution, Skinner said. He added that there must be better broadband data reporting measures.

“When you look at broadband access, as reported by Internet service providers [which FCC data relies on], I think it tells a different story than what people actually go through, ”Skinner said.

“What we’re showing in our report is that place matters and that these historical disparities matter. It’s linked to identity, it’s linked to race, it’s linked to ethnicity, it’s linked to income, it’s all these pieces. These connections between these parts are important, ”he added.

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