Voices: Reactions To ‘If I Were A Poor Black Kid’

By Arturo R. García

Just when you thought Satoshi Kanazawa had wrapped up Tone-Deaf Article Of The Year honors for 2011, Forbes’ Gene Marks sauntered his way into consideration Monday with “If I Were A Poor Black Kid,” which spun a speech by President Obama on economic inequality into a privilege-fest with bon mots like these, emphasis mine:

If I was a poor black kid I 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. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

Somehow Forbes chose not to tag the bit about good grades as BREAKING NEWS. But maybe Marks’ editors didn’t want to overshadow the moment when he breaks it down even further than the President. That whole Occupy business? Totally barking up the wrong tree:

President Obama was right in his speech last week. The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance. So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them. Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home. Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it. Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids. Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

And about Prof. Melissa Harris-Perry thinking Marks’ column sounded like something out of The Onion? Well, she’s not wrong:

You know, it occurs to me that you don’t even live in America. And I’ve got to know, what the heck are you doing living in Sri Lanka? What do they have there? Camels? Rugs? Well, I can tell you one thing they don’t have: 100 percent grade-A American opportunity.

America is the land of milk and honey. You can probably catch a flight here from Sri Lanka for as little as $2,500 if you shop around. So what’s keeping you? Okay, I can imagine how it is: you live in a back alley and you eat garbage. And maybe you don’t have the liquid capital to outlay $2,500 on a luxury-like first-class airfare to the U.S. Well, you can always fly coach for about a third of first-class fare, and if worst comes to worst, put it on the plastic. As long as you pay it off as quickly as you can, the interest won’t cramp your style. (See Tip #1.)

It should also be noted that, as, Talking Point Memo’s Callie Schweitzer pointed out, Marks has also applied his “wisdom” to gender-equality issues in the workplace:

Women also have more personal and social pressures than men. And this affects their ability to further their careers and get the experience they need to become good managers. It’s common today for families to have two working parents. But let’s admit it, when little Johnny gets sick at school who’s the first person that’s usually called? When a child is up at night coughing, which parent is staying up with her? When the plumber has to make an emergency morning visit, who’s generally staying at home to deal with it?

It’s usually mom. And even if she has a full time job too.

When my wife and I were younger and our baby would cry in the middle of the night I would put a pillow…over my head. That stopped the crying for sure. My wife (who was working full time by the way) was the one who got out of bed to care for the child. Yes, I was an ass. I’m not saying that many dads don’t pitch in or try to do their fair share. But as much as women have achieved in earning their equality, there are still some age old cultural habits that won’t die. Children need their mommies. And most moms I know, whether they have a full time job or not, want to be there for their child. I know plenty of women who admit they struggle with this instinctual tug on their gut. Men don’t have this kind of instinctual tug. Let’s face it: unless there’s beer involved, men don’t have many instincts at all. We figure our wives will ultimately handle these things. And in many cases, they just do.

I could go on and on, and but, you know – beer. More reaction from around the ‘Net under the cut.

In other words, there’s more to getting a foot-hold in middle class than simply knowing how to use Google Scholar. There are a number of complex and tangle-ly mazes to maneuver when one is climbing up the socioeconomic ladder. Working hard is important; but let’s not be naïve. Gene Marks gives no real mention of the hard road ahead it will be for this kids like – access to a full range of technology, transportation to these those fancy-pants magnet schools. And what about supplies, equipment, oh and perquisite education just not offered at those lousy public schools. You see, no matter how hard a kid tries, when the smartest student from a poor-functioning school district walks into my freshman biology class, I can tell. And from day one, she or he is playing catch-up with the kids who attended those private or suburban school districts.
- DN Lee, Scientific American

Everything about Marks’ stupid, stupid essay assumes as unchanging truth that a poor person will have to work ridiculously hard in order to have a future where they are not poor, and this is the root of the problem that Marks not only doesn’t address but asserts is just not that big a deal in his preamble when, after applauding Barack Obama for talking about income inequality, claims that the superrich aren’t getting vastly more than their fair share. Because there’s nothing wrong with expecting someone to work hard to rise above their current status. But there’s plenty wrong with expecting kids to load themselves to the bone with work in order to have a chance to rise above their current status.5 He’s willing to pay lip service to the idea that inequality is wrong, but he’s not willing to suggest that something be done to address the problem of inequality. It’s just another hurdle for poor black kids to jump, and he’s ever so gracious to admit that he, Gene Marks, did not have to jump these hurdles – and that’s just how it is. Tough luck, poor black kids! Those of you who cannot do these incredible and amazing things to struggle upwards, well, there’s always McDonald’s.
- Christopher Bird, MightyGodKing.com

We Negroes are familiar with this particular brand of help. The #WhiteLove™ style of caring. Movies love to show how, when a white person with an open mind shows up and deals with poor blacks, their lives are magically changed. As I read this piece, I sighed to myself and mumbled, “White liberals.”

Please stop your furious typing. I’m not claiming that all white liberals are as completely clueless as Mr. Marks. I’m not even sure that Mr. Marks is, in fact, liberal — but this brand of “help” normally comes wrapped in an “I’m here with you, man! I understand your pain” bow that is purchased at your nearest “Awesome Liberals Totally Get It” gift shop. It’s the “Let me help you help you” brand of awesome.
- Elon James White, The Root

Excuse me Mr. Marks, while I understand and somewhat agree with your position, when was the last time you heard of Black kindergartners in inner-city Chicago receiving iPads? I’ve got all day.

He goes on to say that poor black children need to try their hardest to research nationally recognized magnet schools in hopes to attend. The accelerated learning material will put them on the track to college and higher learning.

Um, once more. I don’t know a child– white, Black, or otherwise– researching schools to attend in hopes of a better tomorrow. They would much rather be out playing with friends or watching cartoons, ignorant to the fact that the educational gap is indeed widening.
- Camille Travis, Uptown Magazine

If I was a rich white dude I would first and most importantly work to make sure I actually saw what it’s like to live as a poor black kid myself before I wrote a condescending column about how we should solve “our” problems. I would make it my #1 priority to spend some actual time with a working-class black family. Obviously, I wouldn’t know any personally, but I’d outreach to a social services program or an inner city school for help finding one willing to let me talk to them. Even the most privileged and obtuse person can look up the name of a charitable nonprofit in the phone book. And if you’re a technology columnist and business consultant, you’ll have even more resources: You can use Google!

Getting firsthand insights is the key to writing an informed column. By seeing and talking to actual people facing the actual situation you’re covering, you can choose to pen a different, better piece. If you choose to give advice about poverty from the comfort of your heated office, behind your expensive computer, in your ergonomic Aeron chair, you’re severely increasing the chances that you’ll look like an arrogant, condescending jerk.

And I would use the contacts available to me as a columnist for a magazine for rich white dudes. My school teacher says that columnists usually have or can find all kinds of stuff online these days. That’s because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes the only way that lazy columnists who don’t want to do their own reporting can get data to inform their opinions.
- Jeff Yang, WNYC

  • Pingback: #MARKSWATCH: The Response and The Meme | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    This article was a fail in so many ways. First like Charlotte86 mentioned, he acknowledges the social, economic, and educational advantages his own kids have over their poor black counterparts, yet he tries to downplay those advantages by bringing up the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mythology and updating it to be “make yourself more internet savvy in order to succeed today”.

    Next he puts all the burden upon the poor kids (no pun intended) to research the good schools, scholarships, etc. He doesn’t bother bringing the adults into the picture and worst yet he doesn’t put the onus on society as a whole to rectify the poor socioeconomic conditions plaguing the inner cities. Finally he doesn’t give any “advice” for kids who may not be intellectually gifted enough to succeed despite their circumstances alone. I heard that for now he’s still standing by his “advice” because he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he hasn’t really found the magical solution towards eradicating poverty after all!!!

    • Matt P

      He says not only “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” but also “never been in your home but let me be the one to tell you where your boots are.”

    • Keith

      Maybe dude grew up reading peanuts cartoons and charlie brown t.v. specials, and got the idea of kids doing things themselves from them. I wonder if people talking to him sounds like someone playing a trumpet because no one with any concept of reality would come up with something so unrealistic and racist.

  • Pingback: If I were a clueless blogger » April Joyner

  • bigscreenkid

    So many things wrong with what this guy wrote… I don’t even know where to start.

    • Matt P

      I wanna start by talking to all the white people I’m watching argue that what he said should be viewed positively because he MEANT well. 

  • bigscreenkid

    So many things wrong with what this guy wrote… I don’t even know where to start.

  • bigscreenkid

    So many things wrong with what this guy wrote… I don’t even know where to start.

  • Anonymous

    When I actually read the article, it was less inflammatory than I was expecting given the title “If I Were A Poor Black Kid”. What I found bizarre is that, unlike others who take pleasure in condescending to and criticizing black people, he admits that there are actually barriers besides “bad culture” and personal laziness preventing poor black kids from succeeding, yet then ends his article by saying that despite the thousands of flaming hoops poor black children have to jump through to get to where his privileged kids are we have ZERO inequality in this country! He even admits that his own kids would not be capable of these feats yet expects little black children to all somehow be capable of surmounting the odds with no help from anyone else. As someone on another blog commented, he’s reinforcing the “you have to work twice as hard” mantra (yup, us dumb negroes ain’t never heard that one before!) but not challenging the inequality of a society in which that concept arose. This article highlights another trend not often discussed in which black children and other children of color are not viewed as children in the mainstream sense by some. If they are suffering it is implied that they are somehow responsible for their plight versus the adults around them and the society that has failed them. If they act out in school they are automatically on the criminal path, not literally acting out problems in other areas of their life. Like someone commented on another blog, what 8 year olds are researching private schools?

    This is just another example of many of the tropes discussed in anti-racist spaces. White Saviorism, whitesplaining, thinking you know what’s best for the poor, the colored, the disadvantaged or oppressed when you know absolutely nothing about them. Disregarding their voices in your conclusion-drawing entirely.

  • Anonymous

    When I actually read the article, it was less inflammatory than I was expecting given the title “If I Were A Poor Black Kid”. What I found bizarre is that, unlike others who take pleasure in condescending to and criticizing black people, he admits that there are actually barriers besides “bad culture” and personal laziness preventing poor black kids from succeeding, yet then ends his article by saying that despite the thousands of flaming hoops poor black children have to jump through to get to where his privileged kids are we have ZERO inequality in this country! He even admits that his own kids would not be capable of these feats yet expects little black children to all somehow be capable of surmounting the odds with no help from anyone else. As someone on another blog commented, he’s reinforcing the “you have to work twice as hard” mantra (yup, us dumb negroes ain’t never heard that one before!) but not challenging the inequality of a society in which that concept arose. This article highlights another trend not often discussed in which black children and other children of color are not viewed as children in the mainstream sense by some. If they are suffering it is implied that they are somehow responsible for their plight versus the adults around them and the society that has failed them. If they act out in school they are automatically on the criminal path, not literally acting out problems in other areas of their life. Like someone commented on another blog, what 8 year olds are researching private schools?

    This is just another example of many of the tropes discussed in anti-racist spaces. White Saviorism, whitesplaining, thinking you know what’s best for the poor, the colored, the disadvantaged or oppressed when you know absolutely nothing about them. Disregarding their voices in your conclusion-drawing entirely.

  • Rebecca A

    I like the fact that I wasn’t the only one who notice how it’s always our fault. We poor black kids just don’t try hard enough to get out of poverty I suppose.  It isn’t fair that black kids are left with text books from the year their parent’s were born while richer whiter schools get freak ipads to work with. With is this, the early 1900′s?Why not fix the education system in the inner cities so that more black kids can do better? why is it possible for a white kid to pass school with an okay average go to an okay college and get an okay job making average money do better than some poorer black student who work their ass off? As a poor black kid, i can tell you that I’m working hard to get a full scholarship to get into a better college because I know my mom doesn’t have the money to do it herself. 

    Also, this mirrors Newt Ginrigh’s speech about poor black kids having no work ethic and being lazy two weeks ago. I guess “holier than thou” white people know exactly what’s wrong with black people without actually talking to them or understanding their struggles. Maybe it’s a disease spreading?

  • Anonymous

    If I were a technologically savvy poor black kid who studied and got good grades, I would wonder why a racist society continues to marginalize my accomplishments and intelligence.  

  • k.eli

    So are poor white kids totally exempt from taking on the workload and responsibilities he mandates poor black kids must make in order to succeed? Oh wait, I forgot that one of the perks of privilege is endlessly finding faults with poor black people while continuing to believe that poor white people don’t exist.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Casher-Oneil/100002427586133 Casher O’neil

      I wonder if the author of this article has ever actually spent any time around lower income black children (or any lower income people in general) and witnessed the challenges they face on a day to day basis.  I doubt it.

      • Baerro

        Exactly. The article was done with an entirely superficial analysis. And despite the fact that he points out “ignorance” as an obstacle, the author is hugely ignorant of the obstacles which he so casually diminishes.

      • Baerro

        Exactly. The article was done with an entirely superficial analysis. And despite the fact that he points out “ignorance” as an obstacle, the author is hugely ignorant of the obstacles which he so casually diminishes.

        • thebibliophile

          He probably volunteers with a progressive non-profit…and has a black friend too…apologies for the snark. I just can’t help myself. I also think this writer will probably see the onslaught of commentary about his essay, as evidence of just how well he hit it.

      • Baerro

        Exactly. The article was done with an entirely superficial analysis. And despite the fact that he points out “ignorance” as an obstacle, the author is hugely ignorant of the obstacles which he so casually diminishes.

    • Keith

      “So are poor white kids totally exempt from taking on the workload and
      responsibilities he mandates poor black kids must make in order to
      succeed?” – They are if conservatives like Newt Gengrige who basically said the same thing about poor black children recently in the news , want to continue to get their vote.

    • Keith

      “So are poor white kids totally exempt from taking on the workload and
      responsibilities he mandates poor black kids must make in order to
      succeed?” – They are if conservatives like Newt Gengrige who basically said the same thing about poor black children recently in the news , want to continue to get their vote.

  • kim

    #ifIwerearichwhitecluelesswhiteguy I’d STFU and actually try to examine and understand what racial and socioeconomic stress does to a child instead of patronizing them,

  • msgray

    This dude really put his foot in it.  But, he says he’s standing by his opinion….sigh