In a reaction to President Obama’s big, pragmatic, race-free economic inequality speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, “Forbes” tech writer Gene Marks crafted a recklessly condescending column called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” In just two days, this white, middle aged keyboard monkey madness has garnered 518 comments on the site and God knows how many page views. It’s officially Internet catnip.
Now Marks, who in his bio describes himself as “a short, balding and mediocre certified public accountant,” starts off well enough:
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.
But things start to fall apart when Marks takes on the rhetorical style of Miss Grant’s “You got big dreams” speech from “Fame” Season 1:
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 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.
Having established his alleged expertise, Marks goes on to negate the very privilege he’s stating and put the onus of hundreds of years of structural racism and decade after decade of class stratification on the shoulders of, drum roll, poor black kids:
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 assumption here, of course, is that poor black kids in West Philadelphia (the ‘hood I’m from, by the way) don’t like reading and writing, that they’re too busy hippidity hopping and bling-fixating to make their shitty schools work for them.
Within this frame, Marks offers a range of subpar-to-mediocre stopgaps. For instance, if he were a poor black kid, he would “visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help me understand books.” (Right. Because nothing says “I’m prepared to compete in a global information economy” like CliffsNotes.)
Without giving any meaningful consideration to the new digital divide, Marks also says he’d “watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy,” when possible “get my books for free at Project Gutenberg” and “learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia to help me with my studies.”
Armed with what he describes as “cheap computers” from outlets like Tiger Direct and the Dell Outlet, Marks’s hypothetical black kid will get himself into “nationally recognized magnet schools like Central, Girls High and Masterman,” competitive public institutions that require high standardized test scores and stellar grades. And for the ones who don’t make the cut, says Marks, there’s the option of private school tokenism:
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. Many would provide funding for not only tuition but also for transportation or even boarding. Trust me, they want to show diversity. They want to show smiling, smart kids of many different colors and races on their fundraising brochures. If I was a poor black kid I’d be using technology to research these schools on the internet, too, and making them know that I exist and that I get good grades and want to go to their school.
The irony of Marks’s vision is that it’s so thoroughly mediocre. He can flaunt his own “I don’t know much about much” ethos because he’s not a poor black kid. The reality is that to compete in earnest with the children of middle class, white male tech writers, poor black kids (and their brown, Asian and Native American sistren and brethren) have to be beyond excellent. And they still might not get the fucking scholarship. Hell, they might not even have a secure, safe place to live. (Thanks subprime housing market!)
Marks could have used technology himself and Googled to find a few of the structural barriers he glances past. In just the past couple of months we’ve seen news that black students get suspended at a far higher rate for the same infractions as white students; that all but four of the students NYPD arrested this summer and fall were black or Latino; and that those poor black kids who evade the police-state in their schools and make it to college aren’t finding Marks’s easy-grab scholarships, since one in three of them owe more than $38,000.
As only artists can, my friend Lekan Jeyifo has been posting Marks-style prose on Facebook over the past couple of days. (This Nigerian-born, bongo-loc’ed illustrator and architect is also using Marks’s photo as his profile picture, but that’s another story.) My two favorites:
If I Was Trying Out For Varsity Basketball At Your Highschool - Forbes
I know becoming a star athlete at even the high school level can be extremely difficult. But that doesn’t mean that a woefully uncoordinated and morbidly obese child that has been home-schooled since 3 years of age can’t become the next Lebron James in today’s society…
If I Was Married To Your Wife - Forbes
I know maintaining a marriage is hard, believe me. But that doesn’t mean that attaining a healthy passionate and companionable relationship is out of your grasp. And no, I am not married, I am actually single…and also a male prostitute. But if I were married to your wife, I would love her better than you. Heck. I would make love to her better than you. I would make use of all of the tantric materials available in our public libraries and would learn how to bring her to orgasm by glancing at her. If I was married to your wife…
Lek’s satirical paragraphs speak more truth about structural inequality than Marks’s entire column. Given the gravity of the topic, that’s scary as hell.