The Digital Divide Isn’t The Only Gap

The Digital Divide Isn’t The Only Gap

Perhaps because we are racing toward a new millennium burdened by the problems of the last century or so, analysts are dissecting the new divides without coming to grips with the old ones.
There is much discussion, for example, of the digital divide — the difference in access that African Americans and others have to the Internet. We’re half as likely to have access, which means we are twice as likely to be locked out of an array of opportunities. In the federal government, some bidding opportunities now take place only electronically. In commerce, some price breaks are offered only on the Internet, which means that those who don’t buy on the Internet end up paying more. It’s like a cyberversion of Michael Harrington’s classic book, The Poor Pay More.  Who would have guessed that technology would exacerbate gaps instead of closing them?
Notwithstanding the digital divide, there are those who will argue that the playing field is level.  They point to progress: the presence of African Americans in the rare air of Fortune 100 CEO’s or CEO-designates, the political advancements that have been made, and other hurdles that have been cleared. Do these folks put their heads under sand, ignoring both statistics and the headlines? A couple of recent encounters reminded me how stark the divide really is.
In mid-July, I met a wonderfully passionate woman, Stacy Scott, at the NAACP convention in New York. As coordinator of the National SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and Infant Death Program Support Center (1-800-638-7437), she is committed to spreading the word that SIDS can be prevented. Armed with fact sheets, flyers, and a heady dose of passion, she is committed to sharing health information and getting communities involved in eliminating the racial infant mortality gap. Some parts of her task, she says, are easy. Placing babies on their back is the greatest prevention against SIDS, she says.
Everyone doesn’t know about SIDS prevention, especially young mothers who have had limited prenatal care and birthing instruction. The result of this lack of knowledge is that African American babies are 2.4 times more likely than Caucasian babies to die of SIDS, and Native American babies are 2.8 times more likely to die of SIDS. In general, African American infant mortality rates are about 2.5 times as high as White infant mortality rates. This is a gap that is wider than the digital divide, but it doesn’t seem to merit as much attention.
Indeed, while the current health crisis has serious civil rights implications, few have tackled it from that perspective. To be sure, we have heard about patients’ rights and HMO reform, but differences in life expectancy and mortality suggest that some populations have a more difficult time getting health services than others do. The situation may be especially acute for infants and young mothers, where racist stereotypes may shape the type of available care.
Stacy Scott says the whole health care infrastructure can be tackled to make sure that mothers get early information about preventing SIDS and other causes of infant mortality. Her goals are to reduce infant mortality rates and eliminate rate differences between groups. The African American rate of infant mortality is currently 14.2 per 1,000 births; compared to 6 per 1,000 for Whites. Her goals also include reducing mortality for Black infants by 22 percent — or to 11.0 per 1,000 live births by the year 2000. 
Much of the gap can be explained by differences in the level of prenatal care. One in five pregnant women received no prenatal care at all in the first trimester of pregnancy. There is a gap between White women and women of color in early prenatal care — 84 percent of White pregnant women, compared to 71 percent of Black and Hispanic pregnant women, received early prenatal care.
Other health factors combine to explain infant mortality differences by race, but the bottom line is that issues of quality of, and access to, health care play a role here. And it goes without saying that income, race, and location often determine the quality of health care.
There is no level playing field, not even at birth, for African Americans. A matter much less weighty than infant mortality brings this point home.
This summer White folks decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Woodstock — that peace-and-love sixties moment that evokes fits of nostalgia among aging hippies. Instead of going to Rome, N.Y., to sing Kumbaya or The Answer is Blowing in the Wind, little White hoodlums decided to use the anniversary of Woodstock to literally rape and pillage, set fires, and steal from merchants. Had these been young African Americans, you could imagine the headlines. Instead, while acts of violence were roundly condemned, too many said “only a few” youth had engaged in them. And while hip-hop and rap acts have been banned from some cities, the mayor of Rome, N.Y. — there goes his reelection — has not ruled out a Woodstock return.
    The digital divide — important as it is — is the tip of the iceberg. While access to the Internet may determine quality of life and entrepreneurial success in the 21st century, there are other divides that determine the basic ability to live. We ought not  let our focus on the future eliminate our concern for the present, and for the African American infants who won’t live long enough to put their hands to a computer keyboard.                                       
    



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