I suppose I should be happy someone out there cares about the welfare of poor black children. After years of being ignored, poor black children are getting the kind of press that usually only comes to scandal ridden celebrities.
First, Republican presidential candidate and current front-runner Newt Gingrich wants to make sure they get jobs as janitors and establish a good work ethic. Now they’re getting advice on how to use technology more advanced than a mop and bucket to ensure a bright a future. It’s good to know so many people are invested in their well-being. If only that were the case.
Gene Marks of Forbes wrote a column entitled “If I Wear a Poor Black Kid” (which has been removed from their website) that, at first glance, I truly hoped was going to be satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s masterful Modest Proposal. Or perhaps something as obviously comedic like Steve Martin declaring he was “born a poor black child” in The Jerk. I was asking for too much.
Instead, what I got was another round of “blame the poor for being poor.” Marks places himself in the shoes of a poor black kid (pick one, any one will do) and imagines himself rising above poverty. If he were that poverty-stricken black child, he would “first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best.” But he wouldn’t stop with getting the best grades. He would be a technology wizard.
“If I was a poor black kid,” he continues, “I’d use the free technology available to help me study. I’d become an expert at Google Scholar. I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help me understand books. I’d watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy.”
As a result of his embrace of technology, good grades, and Protestant work ethic, as a young black and poor kid Gene Marks would be rescued from poverty and build generational wealth for his family to enjoy in perpetuity. Or so the thinking goes.
His arguments aren’t new. The technology he advocates is relatively new, but the “bootstraps” rhetoric is as old as the Reconstruction. If you just work hard, no matter what your lack of resources are or the institutional barriers you face, you can and will achieve.
It’s a philosophy rooted in the false idea that there is a basic fairness in our society, that we are truly a meritocracy. It’s a hallmark of privilege to assume that others have been afforded the same opportunities bestowed upon you.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had the best response to the ideology when he said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” As infuriating as it is to see this flawed philosophy regurgitated in 2011, it’s almost expected. Though it’s not a competition, this isn’t the most offensive aspect of this article.
The problem starts with the title “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” Marks isn’t a poor black kid. And he made no attempt to understand what it actually means to be a poor black kid in the West Philadelphia neighborhoods he mentions. He imagines that if he were a poor black kid, he would act as a middle-income white man. It’s condescending, insulting, misguided, ill-informed, and just plain stupid.
Marks has no idea what he would do if he were a poor black kid. I gather, from his writing, he doesn’t know many poor black kids either. That doesn’t preclude him from having an opinion. But his article revealed his distance from the lived realities of poor black children and a failure to do one basic thing that would have helped him tremendously: talk to a poor black kid.
Apparently anyone who isn’t a white male lacks the ability to speak for themselves and must employ a white male to speak on their behalf. It wouldn’t have been too hard for Marks to visit some of these schools and actually talk to the poor black children attending them and get their thoughts on the greatest obstacles they face in education. As he himself notes, his “kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city.”
They have thoughts, ideas, and opinions all their own. It might have been nice to hear some of them in an article purporting to speak from the viewpoint of one. Particularly when the author’s life experience is so far removed from that of the group for whom he was speaking. Just a thought.
Marks wrote: “The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance,” all while failing to take his own ignorance into account. If he were truly as resourceful as the imaginary poor black kid in his column, he might have done some research and found out that the entire premise of this article was bunk. However, I’m not a “middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background” who writes for Forbes, so I can’t really speak to what one would do.