The President’s speech got me thinking. My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder. This is a fact. In 2011.
Forbes magazine has posted a column by Gene Marks, a middle aged white guy, who wants to give advice to poor black kids about how to be successful in America. Of course, these young black kids read Forbes everyday and will internalize his wisdom. There is no poverty porn, noblesse oblige, white paternalism, compassionate conservative masturbation, navel gazing at work here. No. None at all.
Folks are all over his butt already. In fact, Gene Marks is about to become more popular than he has any right to be, both with the conservative, "blacks have bad culture crowd" (who will hold him up as a brave truth teller), and the anti-racist lecture circuit crowd (who is going to use his essay in Forbes as an object lesson in white privilege for years and years to come).
And like flies on a well formed bit of bovine scatology, black conservative apologists will soon start hovering over Marks' essay as they instinctively rise to defend any assault on either people of color, or the black poor, by the white conservative establishment. Black conservatives are on retainer and are obligated to shuck, buck dance, and jive to earn their keep. Their appearance is imminent.
I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.
It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.
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...
It is difficult to imagine oneself in the shoes of another person. Empathy and sympathy are difficult traits to practice even under the best of circumstances. I also do not know what Gene Marks' intentions were in writing his Forbes' essay. However, I am mighty curious about the intentions of Forbes' editors in publishing such a problematic piece of work.
Marks is likely a "nice" guy who is so awash in white privilege, class entitlement, and sexism (remember, discourses on poverty are almost always about both race and gender) that it is impossible for him to really imagine himself as the Other; yet, he is so arrogant that he imagines himself capable of understanding all people's experiences, at all times, and in all places. This is the crux of White privilege--a sense of gross universality and normativity, a racial heliocentrism that allows a white person to generalize outward with authority on all things.
If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code. I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online. I would study on my own. I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished.
Because a poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part time job and becomes proficient with a technical skill will go to college. There is financial aid available. There are programs available. And no matter what he or she majors in that person will have opportunities. They will find jobs in a country of business owners like me who are starved for smart, skilled people. They will succeed.
Predictably, Whiteness will also make Gene Marks into a victim, as "he is just trying to be helpful" and "how dare those liberals and race pimps tell him that he is wrong!"
Two truisms apply here.
One, you should write what you know. As revealed by his Forbes' essay, Gene Marks does not know anything of the experiences of poor black and brown kids in inner city America. He has no access to their internal lives, his article also suggests a blinding ignorance of the realities of structural inequality in this country.
Two, a fish does not know that it is wet. Despite his lip service to the concept, Marks does not really imagine himself as privileged (as he would have not written such a piece, in the manner that he so chose), or that the life experiences of a self-described mediocre technocrat, one who somehow found himself a columnist for Forbes and the NY Times, are in any way exceptional or unique.
As we saw with Newt Gingrich's ugly suggestions that poor kids should become janitors in order to teach those lazy blacks about the value of hard work, and Rush Limbaugh's observation that poor kids on school lunch programs are greedy street urchins, Marks is a singer in a conservative chorus whose message is simple: you are poor because you are lazy; moreover, poor people want to be poor; poor black kids born to crappy circumstances can do better if they just tried harder...and are smart enough to show some initiative.
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.
I do wonder what Gene Mark's advice would be to lazy, dim, anti-intellectual, and entitled white kids (and those of the upper classes more generally) who were born on the 3rd base of life and think they hit a home run? Would his advice be the same for the white rural poor? What would Gene Marks tell the "new poor," those formerly middle class suburban types who are couch surfing, living in cars, tents, or hotels? What wisdom does he have to preach from on high?
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.
Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.
I will let Gene Mark's closing comments stand on their own: they are ugly poetry in motion.