By Miguel Leon

Redlining has perpetuated systemic inequities in the United States for nearly a hundred years, causing multigenerational impacts that have historically marginalized Black, brown, and indigenous communities into poverty. Digital redlining is no exception as it denies poor communities of color access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunity, while simultaneously limiting their ability to actively engage in our democracy. Among the hardest hit are Black communities. 

Across the country, Black Americans are less likely to own a computer and have access to the internet than their white counterparts. For adults, this means an inability to search for jobs, apply for unemployment, or access other public social services. For children and youth, it results in an inability to attend virtual schooling, complete assignments, and pursue growth opportunities, such as internships and online courses. Digital redlining directly contributes to economic discrimination as industry leaders prioritize building faster, cheaper, more reliable internet in wealthy communities knowing they will obtain larger profits despite the fact that poor communities are left unserved or with antiquated and slow internet connections. Beyond discrimination, digital redlining undeniably exacerbates the insidious public health crisis that poor communities of color have been dealing with even before the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Consequences of Redlining

Digital redlining is a 21st century extension of redlining, which emerged in the United States in the 1930s. As part of the New Deal, the U.S. government passed the National Housing Act of 1934, which introduced 30-year mortgages and low, fixed interest rates. Additionally, to ensure new homeowners didn’t foreclose on their homes, the government created the Homeowners Loan Corporation, which, in turn, led to Residential Security Maps. The maps categorized communities into a hierarchy that not only determined who could purchase and refinance homes, but also where they could do so. The hierarchy was color coded: green was deemed “best,” blue “good,” yellow “declining,” and red “hazardous” because of “detrimental influences”—alluding to foreign-born people and negroes. 

Racism manifested itself in covenants that forbid Black people from purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods and segregated them in communities that deteriorated over time due to this blatant lack of investment. Even with the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Black Americans struggled to access one of the most prevalent means of building intergenerational wealth: securing loans and purchasing homes. For nearly 30 years, 98% of FHA loans were given to white families. As a result Black homeownership is still declining today as Black communities continue to fight for better schools, more jobs, and safer neighborhoods. Redlining’s legacy is the U.S. government’s legacy, and communities of color continue to suffer for it.  

Lack of Digital Literacy is Not the Main Problem

Fast forward to the present day where research shows that wealthy households are more likely to be connected to the internet. National internet service providers (ISPs) argue that the issue for poor communities isn’t an issue of availability but rather of adoption. According to ISPs, low-income communities require more digital literacy to get online—or so the ISPs’ self-reporting data that is not publicly available seems to indicate as they insist that most everyone, especially in urban communities, has the ability to connect. That same data considers a census block served if one household is connected to the internet. Consequently, trusting national ISPs to achieve digital equity for Black people today equates to trusting the Homeowners Loan Corporation with offering Black people equal lending and housing opportunities in the 1930s.  

The Future of Digital Equity for Black Americans

Fortunately, there is hope that we can break these cycles that perpetuate digital inequities. Recent federal and state investments in broadband infrastructure open the possibility for innovative approaches to connecting Black and brown people to the internet. Despite progress, vigilance is essential as industry lobbies to maintain its monopoly on what should be a public utility and a human right. 

If you’d like to learn more, join the Michelson 20MM Foundation on September 23, 2021, for “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color” or visit our website for more information. 

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.