Digital inequality and racialized place in the 21st century: A case study of San Francisco's Chinatown

Emily Hong


Despite robust scholarship on the digital divide, little attention has been paid to its spatiality: how does the organization of physical space, especially the status of the built environment, affect digital access? These questions are especially neglected with regard to Asian Americans, who are thought to have consistently high levels of technological attainment. Nonetheless, certain Asian American communities, particularly those that are poor, working-class, or from refugee backgrounds, remain disproportionately disconnected from the Internet. In this paper, I examine the relationships between digital, racial, and environmental inequalities in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I show that historic disinvestment in Chinatown’s building stock, combined with campaigns led by ethnic Chinese people themselves to preserve historic structures and prevent displacement, have created a physical landscape that cannot support broadband Internet. As a result, many residents depend on inferior connections that diminish their life outcomes. I conclude that digital inaccess is the most recent manifestation of historical place-based racism through which Asian Americans have been constructed as outsiders and perpetual foreigners.


Chinatown; San Francisco; Asian Americans; digital divide; digital inequality; Internet; race; built environment

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