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“If I Were A Poor Black Kid”: Gene Marks And The Reaction

Submitted by on December 17, 2011 – 12:00 pm11 Comments

A few days ago, Forbes contributor and business technology writer Gene Marks (above) wrote an open letter to “poor, black” children as a contributor for Forbes, igniting the internet in a debate over inequality and race. While many acknowledge Marks’ article, “If I Were A Poor Black Kid”, as “well-intentioned,” the fiery criticisms leveled against his advice on education and technology range from “simplistic” to “insulting”, “offensive”, and “incredibly paternalistic.”

Marks primarily urges students to focus on their educations, and suggests resources that might be able to help:

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…

If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study.  I’d become 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.

But many have criticized Marks for vastly underestimating the challenges of at-risk youth, as well as just plainly stating the obvious in urging students to do well in school. In addition, many have seen offensive racial and social overtones in the self-described “middle class white guy” from a “middle class background” offering this kind of perspective; and they questioned why Marks focused on race, and not general socio-economic status.

Many writers were perceptibly angry at what they saw as condescension or even racial arrogance. Kelly Virella at Dominion of New York provides a succinct argument that Marks is essentially echoing the same beliefs of racist legislators from 150 years ago, who created a system where formerly enslaved African Americans would still not have true equality:

The architects of equality before the law, or equality of opportunity, knew that it would only allow a few special black people to succeed, and shrugged their shoulders about the rest. As the Reverend Horace James, the former Superintendent of Negro Affairs in North Carolina, said in 1865, “Give the colored man equality, not of social condition, but equality before the law, and if he proves himself the superior of the Anglo Saxon, who can hinder it? If he falls below him, who can help it?”

DL Lee, a contributor to Scientific American, compares the plight of poor African Americans to that of Cinderella- “wicked stepmothers” like Marks say they can attend the ball if they do all their work, only to continuously pile on demands and ignore the infinite other obstacles that exist.

Others had more sympathetic interpretations, seeing Marks’ article as an understandable product of historical misunderstandings and human error. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic compares Marks’ ignorance of poverty and racism to similar resistance confronting the reality of slavery:

It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings — to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter, that were we poor and black our sense of Protestant industry would be a mighty power sending gang leaders, gang members, hunger, depression and sickle cell into flight. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct.

Cord Jefferson at GOOD News similarly notes that Marks misses the overwhelming ways that race and poverty can affect a child’s life (and also provides my personal favorite criticism of the article: “There’s a lot wrong with ‘If I Was a Poor Black Kid,’ not the least of which is the grammar in the title”).

Interestingly, Marks said he was inspired by a recent speech from President Obama in Kansas,which also received near universal approval from all those reacting to Marks. But that speech was about how the nation and the economic situation are currently failing American students and workers, even those who are determined and work hard.

What do you think? What would you say to Gene Marks?

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