On Tuesday, African-Americans and others are celebrating Juneteenth, the day when word of the abolition of slavery belatedly reached the far corners of the United States. A symbol of African-American pride and history, the event is being promoted online. It's also drawing attention to the online disparities between whites and some racial minorities, referred to as the digital divide.
Juneteenth.com provides information on the history of that day as well as on celebrations occurring across the country that are being sponsored by local and national organizations.
"It's ironic that the technology that we use now--if something like that had existed during those times, the slaves would have found out much sooner," said Cliff Robinson, who created the Web site four years ago in New Orleans.
Web sites such as Juneteenth also highlight economic realities that have kept the extent of Internet access significantly lower among blacks and other groups than among whites.
Only 7.9 percent of people who have access to the Internet at home come from households headed by African-Americans. More than 88 percent of people who have access to the Web at home are from households headed by Caucasians, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
While some say the digital divide stems from lack of access to PCs or other technological devices, others say the low percentage of African-Americans online has to do with a lack of content.
Sonia Arrison, director of the Center for Freedom and Technology at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, said that if people really wanted to get online, they could do so through various programs offering free computers and free Net access. The issue, Arrison said, is the lack of material that's of interest to African-Americans, especially young people.
But that's changing, she said.
"It's not a matter of money--it's a matter of wanting to get on and whether there's content that these particular communities are interested in," Arrison said. "The idea of Juneteenth.com is fantastic. The more that this kind of stuff gets online and actually gets the African-American community interested in the Net, I think that's one of the best things we can do to try to solve the digital divide from a racial perspective."
Other sites offer online information and services geared toward African-Americans. Africana.com, co-founded by Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, focuses on history and culture, while NetNoir and BET.com look more toward popular culture and contemporary affairs.
Washington weighs in
Some lawmakers in Washington are striving toward an end to the digital divide as well.
Fred Upton, chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, has been pushing for funds to close the gap.
In February, the Michigan Republican wrote to the Office of Management and Budget objecting to reports that the Commerce Department's fiscal 2002 budget would reduce the Technology Opportunity Program (TOP) to $15 million from $42.5 million. TOP, created in 1994, provides matching grants to state, local and tribal governments for technology projects designed to improve libraries, public health services and education. About $150 million in grants has been awarded since its inception.
A bill in Congress, dubbed the Broadband Internet Access Act of 2001, is also intended to close the divide. The bill would accelerate the deployment of broadband access to the Internet for people located in certain low-income and rural areas. Introduced by Phil English, R-Pa., in the House and by John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in the Senate, the pending legislation is sitting in committee.
Juneteenth's Robinson says his biggest challenge is attracting more people to his site. Despite relatively low funds and no national sponsor, he remains optimistic about the future of the Web.
Growing up in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, he became interested in the issue of diversity. Discovering that the Web was a "tremendous tool" to reach people, he created the Juneteenth site, which is owned by his Internet marketing and communications company, GNO Communications.
Robinson said he set up the site to educate people about the celebration, adding that it also delivers a special message for the African-American community.
"The other piece is to just refresh and to remind African-Americans in general to be proud of our heritage and that we've overcome the obstacles that we've overcome and what your ancestors endured," Robinson said. "You have to be proud."