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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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  • Well, I attend mastery charter in west Philadelphia and that article was introduced to me and my fellow classmates and we were absolutely disgusted. . . . You can’t be serious , I mean that was vastly insulting !!!! I am in the ninth grade and you have proven to me that SOME whites believe they are inferior to blacks . You could have respect and call us african americans . This is downright ignorant . . . Do you even know ” those” poor black kids NOOOOO, so why are you even writing about them by the way, we DONT need to use school resources or work as hard as we can in class because I have a bright future and I am middle class and I will be more successful than your children!!!!!! Get a life and stop trying to take away from us hahahaha thats exactly why our president is black and we will suceed:)))))

  • anonymous says:

    Dude you have a bad bald spot you need to take care of instead of commenting on things you absolutely have no clue about. I fel nad tha n e are once again being thrown under the bus. . . . You are a horrible influence to children . whoever approves of this is also mentally ill. Be real with yourself !!!!!

  • Spo101 says:

    If I were a poor Black kid I’d start a revolution to hold the ruling class accountable for their waste, fraud, abuse of power, scandal, corruption, sexual deviancy, bold-faced lies, media consolidation, welfare for the rich, war profiteering, Enron/others from a corporate crime wave and violations of our Constitution? I am somebody cyberbitchslap2.blogspot.com

  • Black Student says:

    I just want to let you know that your article was completely revolting. You don’t know anything about “poor black kids” to make judgement. First of all, not all parents in the inner city can afford these resources because they have to pay for other things (i.e. rent, debt, etc). You can’t just assume everyone’s living situation is perfect. Not everyone has a great life like yours in the suburbs. Most of these children don’t have all the opportunities and that is why some of them don’t make it to college. You need to stop stereotyping these kids, because that is the last thing they need. And your absolutely ridiculous to say that all they need to do is get good grades; That just shows how messed up our education system is. Kids nowadays are taught to get good grades and don’t actually take the time to learn. I am a sixteen years old high school student and I see this behavior everyday. I just want to let you know that you are talking about a student like me. My family does not make a lot of money and I do live in the city, but people like you wont stop or distract me because I will never listen to the BS you preach. It’s people like you that keep these students back. Brush up on your facts my friend because your ignorance isn’t getting you ANYWHERE!

  • Sierra says:

    Thank you, Mr. Gene Marks, for writing “If I was a poor black kid”! Now we Forbes Magazine readers won’t have to worry about poor black kids, only the poor white kids. So Mr. Marks, please, please, please write a Forbes article “If I were a poor white kid”. Give the poor white kids some advice so that we Forbes readers can lose our guilt over poor white kids. I’m know you have different advice for the poor white kids since your first article was just for poor black kids.

    Do you have some advice for poor single moms, black or white? I have a lot of guilt about poor single moms, both white and black. Take it one race at a time just like you did for the poor black kids. Next you can target some advice to other poor groups. Then print up some advice for the middle class who are falling behind. We Forbes readers are a guilty bunch! Thanks so much for the guilt relief, Mr. Marks.

  • FRANCINE says:

    “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” Is just another long standing example that whites have been using against Afro-Americans since 1619.After legalized slavery(1865) Whites had the same things to say upon other untrues, also Whites America pass laws to keep us from realizing our hopes,and dreams. White America passed laws to legally keep us from the vast majority of freedoms and opportunities that they had designated for Whites Only and these same type barriers still exist. Whites,after the election of Barack Obame is a post racial society, what B.S.Whites are still using that same old Reagan welfare queen example to make false claims that Blacks are consuming welfare benefits. Whites receive 61%of all public assistance in this. Whites have this love affair with the War on Drugs and claiming that it is a Blacks, are the cornerstone of illegal drugs in this country,when white Know that they are largest buyers and users of illegal drugs, but they incarcerate Blacks to try to make their lie to be the truth. This article is just another well used arguement that Whites like to use so they won’t have to face the truth about themselves. Just as NATIVE PEOPLES.

  • Alma Jackson says:

    I would like to say to Mr Marks that he doesnt know what he is talking about, I dont know what he was taught when he was growing up but whatever it was it was wrong about Black Children. Mr Marks I am a 65 year old woman who grew up in Mississippi Poor with my Wonderful Grandmother, but we wasnt poor, and the wisdom this lady possessed was outstanding, I was never homeless, or hungry, We raised the food we ate. Now the schooling is something else, We had hand me down school books and we didnt have a chemistry class, we only had reading math and spelling. Most poor kids today doesnt have access to a computer, and Mark if you dont have access to certain things how are you suppose to sit and want to be something that you know nothing about. I will open a Focus center for kids of all ages and color but I dont have the cash or means right now to make it happen and I am 65 and have 10 grandchildrens. I see first hand the problem these kids have but you cant get blood out of a turnip, I wish I could teach you a truth about poor People and there are just as many poor white kids as black.

  • [...] emphasising: “We’re more than that.”. The Forbes piece, headlined “If I was a poor black kid“, caused a huge stir and response. One close reading of simplistic mainstream [...]

  • [...] on reservations, emphasising: “We’re more than that.”. The Forbes piece, headlined “If I was a poor black kid“, caused a huge stir and response. One close reading of simplistic mainstream journalism called [...]

  • Hi! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  • [...] This past week Twitter was in an uproar (but when isn’t Twitter in an uproar?) about an article from Gene Marks called If I Was a Poor Black Kid.  There were quite a few rebuttals, some rational, some name calling. Some of the rebuttals can be found here, here, here, here, and here. [...]

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