Race and Environment in the 21st Century: Digital Inequality in San Francisco’s Chinatown

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Laura Barraclough
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The Internet is an ascendant part of modern American life, prompting many scholars toinvestigate the social and material aspects of the digital divide, defined as the difference between those who do and those who do not have access to the Internet and related technologies. However, less attention has been directed to the physical factors that contribute to persistent digital inequalities, and in particular the significance of the built environment in ethnic and racially defined communities. In this paper, I use San Francisco’s Chinatown as a case study to examine the relationship between digital and physical patterns of urban inequality. Drawing parallels with previous work done by Di Chrio, Pulido, Park, and Pellow on the environmental justice movement, and building upon the theory of Environmental Inequality Formation (EIF), I find that the digital divide is the most recent manifestation of historical, place-based processes that define racial identities and subsequently govern access to resources. Additionally, I show that the digital divide is exacerbated by inadequate access to housing, and that disparities in Internet use may worsen socio-economic inequality by restricting access to information and skills increasingly necessary for economic survival.