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Tone Deafness and “If I Were A Poor Black Kid”

by Alonzo on December 15, 2011

It seems Forbes contributing writer Gene Marks set off a firestorm with his latest column, “If I Were A Poor Black Kid.”

What does a self-proclaimed “middle aged white guy” know about growing up poor and black? Evidently not much. His overtly paternalist lecture advises poor kids to simply work hard and use the internet to lift themselves up by their own power cords, I mean… bootstraps.

“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…….

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 …….

Most private schools I know are filled to the brim with the 1%.  That’s because these schools are exclusive and expensive, costing anywhere between $20 and $50k per year. But there’s a secret about them.  Most have scholarship programs.  Most have boards of trustees that want to give opportunities to kids that can’t afford the tuition.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Marks comments unleashed a furious multicultural backlash around the blogosphere.

Danielle Belton at the Black Snob wrote:

And don’t even get me started on how as a kid you’re supposed to understand the long-term importance of education to the point that you want to self-educate without any influence from parents or teachers. Who’s encouraging a kid (who spends most their time around their family and other kids at school) to do this stuff if no one in their world is doing it? Do poor black kids read Forbes? Does Drake rap about the Diigo?

Toure at Time Magazine responded to Mr. Grant’s superficial understanding of the issues:

I wouldn’t think about how my cheery advice doesn’t really interact with the challenges of being a poor Black kid — from the lack of role models to poor schools to depressed employment opportunities to the lure of the drug game to the day-to-day difficulties of being poor that makes it hard to get out of being poor because of a system that’s constructed to keep you poor.

Cord Jefferson advocated that the relationship between poverty and education is not as simple as Gene Marks claims:

I’d love to ask them how best to focus on your studies when all you can think about is the very real possibility that your mother is being assaulted in the bedroom where you’re supposed to find sanctuary at night. How best to prioritize learning to read rigorously over scheming to get home and be the man of the house in the stead of the father who left? How best to find joy in school with so much hate and bitterness poisoning the rest of your life?

Now I’m not saying a middle aged white guy, or anyone of any other ethnic persuasion, should be criticized for writing about helping poor black kids. Much of the blow-up revolves around the fact that we would expect someone in Grant’s position to do a little research first. Instead, his article smacks of a high school student rushing to complete a homework assignment he started ten minutes before class.

How about interviewing some poor kids to understand their unique situations or challenges? Is seeking out an educational scholar or two too much to ask?

But perhaps Gene Mark’s greatest sin is the pernicious blaming of victims, children in this case, for a situation us grown folks should have fixed long ago.

As a nation, it’s us adults who should have ensured exceptional schools nationwide, even in our poorest neighborhoods.

As adults, we should have demanded that all children have access to health care, safety from violence, and the tools they need to succeed in life.

And despite President Bush asserting that working three jobs is “uniquely American”, we should have demanded an economic system that doesn’t force the working poor to toil away at multiple jobs, leaving kids alone at home to fend for themselves.

Yet, I have a sneaky suspicion that Mr. Grant is less concerned about the plight of poor black kids and more concerned about creating the type of buzz that builds a torrent of internet traffic.

As fellow Forbe’s writer Kashmir Hill explains, the internet offers third rail topics sure to ignite an inferno, – race, religion and sex among them. Grant’s goal, she alludes, is to ride that third rail to increased page views and ultimately a fatter paycheck.

And judging from internet storm he’s unleashed, we may have all just taken the bait.

Photo Credit: Tiago Celestino

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