Research Looks at How Racial Inequality is Produced Online

Internet users tend to navigate between websites in a racially segregated way, despite pathways that provide equitable access to different sites, finds a new study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. The findings are published online in the journal Information, Communication, and Society.

Discussions about racial inequality on the web have been going on for decades, but few studies have attempted to demonstrate whether and how systemic racial inequality might form on the web.

“We know that people do racist things on and using the Internet – but looking beyond individual, interpersonal accounts of bigotry, how does systemic racial inequality form in the digital world?” asked Charlton McIlwain, associate professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s author.

McIlwain designed a study to conceptualize how race is represented and systematically reproduced online, specifically looking at how users navigate the web’s structure and how that structure influences users’ navigational patterns. He used the lens of racial formation theory, which conceptualizes how institutions draw on prevailing racial common sense to produce advantages and disadvantages that flow to racial groups.

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