Forbes contributor Gene Marks admits that his status as a middle class white man has made life easier for him than for others. He also admits that his kids are no smarter than their counterparts from the inner city but have it easier in life because the world is unfair.

Unfortunately, this is where Marks’ opinion piece “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” parts ways with reality and verges into paternalistic, prescriptive solutions for black youth to overcome inequality that have sparked debate as the article has circulated online.

Marks references Obama’s recent speech addressing inequality and proposes a detailed solution to the unfairness of the world by listing all of the tools that he would use to lift himself out of the trenches of poverty and into the middle class if he found himself poor, black, and on the wrong side of the tracks.

“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.

The author then goes on to detail the plethora of resources available on the internet and how if he were a poor black kid he would get his hands on a free or cheap computer, learn how to write code, then Google his way into a magnet or charter school, or even a need-based scholarship to a private school. Once that’s done, he’d develop a close relationship with a guidance counselor and get himself into a good college.

“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.”

The author goes on to write:

“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.”

There’s nothing wrong with making suggestions about how to improve the world, and the logic in Marks’ piece makes complete sense — in a vacuum. What angers people about this type of ignorance is that it’s generally not a good idea to prescribe solutions to groups of people who you admit to having very little interaction with, even if they only live two miles away from your cozy suburban surroundings. It’s even worse to imply that if poor black kids would just want to be helped, if they would just be smart enough to go for all of the resources out there, equality would be solved, lickety-split.

What do you think? Does Marks have a point? Or is does he have it all wrong?

 

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  • Tobi Robian

    As a teacher of inner city children of color, I agree wholeheartedly with the author that education is still the ticket out of poverty. However, I feel he fails to realize that what is NOT necessarily inherent in these youngsters is the drive to succeed. Without parental involvement, what child will “naturally” want to become a good student without a push and strong encouragement? Will Leticia and Shaquan go home to find a warm hug from mom and the typical questions, “What did you do/learn in school today”? Many times this is not the case. Though all children are born with open, curious minds, the natural inclination to learn and grow may be quashed when parents aren’t involved or don’t encourage children to do their best.

    Struggling with new concepts is how we all learn. However, if the struggle results in failure with no encouragement to keep trying, students begin to lag behind and many soon give up trying at all. I see so much of this “learned helplessness” on a daily basis and I simply don’t accept it! I MAKE the kids try and TRY again until they master a concept. (I’m a math teacher…can you tell?).

    My point is that adults must do their part to push kids to excel. Success cannot occur in any other way.

    Last June, I received a letter from a student telling me that I was the only person who made her care about herself, and that through her own efforts, she could do the required work and succeed in school! I cried like baby because it seemed my efforts had been in vain as I tried to get students to care about who they were and what they needed to do to survive and thrive during my first years of teaching. That letter made it all worthwhile!

  • michael stanford

    this is a writer that is ignorant of the 2 main causes of inequality, classism and racism. walk a mile in those shoes.