Cyberspace is visited by blacks but occupied mostly by whites, according to one of the first studies on race and Internet use.

The study by two professors at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., published this month in Science magazine, found that whites are more likely than blacks to own a computer and more likely to use the Web frequently.The survey's most surprising result is that black high school and college students are half as likely to own a home computer as white students - even when their incomes are the same.

"That's evidence that race is a factor, not just class," said study co-author Donna Hoffman.

Hoffman and Thomas Novak based their sometimes contradictory conclusions on data obtained through telephone interviews of 5,813 people in December 1996 and January 1997 by Nielsen Media Research. They say the results illustrate for the first time a racial "digital divide."

The inequity could have a serious effect on the economy. "If a significant segment of our society is denied equal access to the Internet, U.S. firms will lack the technological skills needed to remain competitive," the authors wrote.

But one critic said it's too early to paint a grim picture of high-tech racial inequality.

"Yes, black folks are behind in 1998," said David Ellington, chief executive officer of NetNoir, a Web site for blacks in San Francisco. "Ninety-nine percent of white people are also not online. So I'm not panicked about this. If this were 2002 I would care, but not in the third year of this industry."

He said the divide speaks more to income differences.

In fact, the survey shows that income frequently is a defining factor in computer ownership and literacy for nonstudents.

Blacks who make more than $40,000 per year were just as likely - or even more likely - than whites to own a home computer, use a PC at work and surf the Web regularly, according to the survey.

In fact, the study found that far more blacks are online - about 5 million as of January 1997 and 1.4 million within the past week - than previous estimates of 1 million blacks using the Internet.