On the Persistent Pertinence of Race (The Mobile Phone Use Edition)
posted by Olivier Sylvain
This has been a notable month for those of us who casually or professionally monitor racism and racialism in our putatively post-racial era. Recent studies and news reports confirm that race apparently continues to matter to population distribution, poverty rates, and perceptions about the fairness of criminal justice in the U.S. None of these recent reports and findings reveal anything particularly new about how this world actually looks and operates, notwithstanding the talk about postracialism in America today.
One piece of data, however, continues to intrigue me. According to a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project published earlier this week, racial minorities rely on their mobile phones for Internet access and text messaging on a daily basis much more than whites. There is nothing particularly new in this information. Researchers have been reporting on the pertinence of age, race, gender, and geography on mobile phone use for some time now. And, for what it’s worth, media use generally has also long been shown to be determined in part by race.
It’s the sheer magnitude of this text messaging datum, however, that continues to strike me. Blacks evidently use their mobile handheld devices to communicate more than people who self-identify as something other than black, doing so at two times the rate of whites. (They are apparently well overrepresented among Twitter users, too.) Certainly, other variables that are meaningfully correlated with race in the U.S. (i.e., wealth, educational opportunity, employment, and income) complicate the story. But even those factors can’t explain the entire difference, as big as it is.
So why the difference? Do these use rates hold true for wealthier, more educated, and employed racial minorities? Does culture explain some of the difference? I don’t know, and I’m not sure any published research provides an explanation. Until recently, my own speculation had been that a large chunk of the difference might be related to an uneven distribution of ownership of laptops and PCs. But, at least according to one source, that divide has narrowed recently.
Todd Wolfson, a professor at Rutgers’ School of Communications and Information, is currently working on a related but different project that will answer at least some of these questions. As he tells it, his aim is to measure the costs and benefits of broadband adoption in largely black low-income communities in Philadelphia, as well as the ability of those communities to use the Internet (presumably by mobile phone) for economic development and community organizing. We can presume that Professor Wolfson’s research will reveal something useful about the distributional fairness or unfairness of having black low-income communities rely so much on mobile phones for IP-based communications. (My sense is that it’s hard to apply for a job or keep up with community related affairs through the phone.) I’m curious about any other research in which others are engaged.
In any event, the implications for policy and law are self-evident. At a minimum, it suggests that regulatory interventions meant to bridge the persistent disparity in access to IP-based communications platforms ought to attend to wireless mobile availability as much as wireline broadband service. Of course, we should probably also work on the complex of underlying disparities in wealth, educational opportunity, and employment. But, in the interest of addressing this racial divide directly, we probably need a comprehensive policy approach that is untethered to the prevailing one-size-fits-all strategy.
This uneven distribution of mobile phone use also has implications for privacy and competition policy. No matter your feelings about the role of government in public life, we can all appreciate that the lack of clearly articulated and enforceable privacy protections for IP-based communications or uniformly applicable rules on whether mobile network operators can discriminate against content and application providers probably impacts racial minorities differently (i.e., harder and for the worse) than others.
As with much of things racial these days, however, it’s unclear there is much political or regulatory will to address such a touchy non-topic on its own terms.