There are days when I think we should revive those iconic anti-drug ads from the 1980s to read This Is Your Brain On White Privilege. We could use it to advertise op-eds like the one published this week on Forbes.com entitled “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” Now, if you’re a middle-aged rich white dude writing for Forbes—the official magazine of rich white dudes—and you decide that what the world really needs is for you to write a column called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” then you need to back slowly away from your MacBook, sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up. SRSLY. I don’t care how well-meaning you think you’re being. Just shut the fuck up. Right now.
But no. It’s too late for that. Sorry, folks…this is going to happen.
Of course, Forbes writer Gene Marks is willing to concede that:
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.
He is not from that background and hasn’t lived those experiences, but despite that, he feels eminently qualified to tell those poor black kids what they should be doing to overcome racism, poverty, and socioeconomic injustice. (NB: he’s not interested in discussing the actual problems or what might be done to solve them.) It’s mansplain-y, clueless, condescending and masquerading as coach-y pep talk. Here’s a taste:
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. 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.
And I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays. That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home then on the streets. And libraries and schools have computers available too. Computers can be purchased cheaply at outlets like TigerDirect and Dell’s Outlet. Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.
Oh yeah, and if I were a poor black kid, I’d have access to all the same information and technology as an affluent, college-educated white reporter for Forbes. My parents and I would have contacts with professional organizations of accountants and architects, even though I live in a neighborhood with high unemployment and none of my relatives went to college or work white-collar jobs. Plus I’d have lots of spare time to spend hunting down those resources since I wouldn’t have to help care for my family or work any after-school jobs in addition to going to school. I’d also have the know-how to use all this technology because the public school I went to would have adequate funding for the best teachers, computer labs and after-school programs. And of course, I’d be completely safe in my neighborhood and at my school so that I wouldn’t have to worry about harm to me or my family while pursuing my goals.
Even if all of Uncle Gene’s advice magically worked for one poor black kid, what about the rest? Implicit in Marks’s argument is his belief that the majority of poor black kids will not succeed through no fault of their own, simply because the deck is stacked against them. He’s conceding right up front that upward mobility is only possible for the “very best”: the lucky, the exceptionally intelligent and hard-working. If those kids were white or reasonably affluent, then they could be mediocre and lazy and unlucky and probably still have a halfway decent life. What about the merely average, unlucky, or lazy poor black kids? Apparently, Gene Marks has no helpful advice for them.
“If I Were a Poor Black Kid” brought to mind an unforgettable rant in the book The Corner, by David Simon and Ed Burns (Simon is best known as the creator of “The Wire”, but he wrote two books of extraordinary reportage about Baltimore in the 80s and 90s.) After detailing the struggles of a black inner-city family mired in generational poverty and drug addiction, Simon lashes out at people like Gene Marks, people utterly convinced that if it were them, they’d know exactly how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s the single most blistering indictment of complacently racist white America that I’ve ever read—one that smacks you upside the head like a lead pipe:
If it was us, we’d endure. Succeed. Thrive. No matter what, no matter how, we’d find the fucking exit.
If it was our fathers firing dope and our mothers smoking coke, we’d pull ourselves past it. We’d raise ourselves, discipline ourselves, teach ourselves the essentials of self-denial and delayed gratification that no one in our universe ever demonstrated. And if home was the rear room of some rancid, three-story shooting gallery, we’d rise above that too. We’d shuffle up the stairs past nodding fiends and sullen dealers, shut the bedroom door, turn of he television and do our schoolwork…And if there was no food on the table, we’re certain we could deal with that. We’d lie about our age to cut taters and spill grease and sling fries at the sub shop for five-and-change an hour…we’d work that job by night and go to class by day, by some miracle squeezing a quality education from the disaster that is the Baltimore school system. We’d do all the work, we’d pay whatever the price, and when all the other children are out in the street, learning the corner world, priming themselves for the only life they’ve ever known, we’d be holed up in some shithole of a rowhouse with our textbooks and yellow highlighter, cramming for finals…
That’s the myth of it, the required lie that allows us to render our judgments. It’s a reckoning of another kind, perhaps, and one that becomes a possibility only through the arrogance and certainty that so easily accompanies a well-planned and well-tended life. We know ourselves, we believe in ourselves; from what we value most, we grant ourselves the illusion that it’s not chance and circumstance, that opportunity itself isn’t the defining issue.
Yes, if we were down there, if we were the damned of the American cities, we would not fail. WE would rise above the corner. And when we tell ourselves such things, we unthinkingly assume that we would be consigned to places like Fayette Street [in the Baltimore slums] fully equipped, with all the graces and disciplines, talents and training that we now possess…Amid the stench of so much defeat and despair, we would kick fate in the teeth and claim our deserved victory. We would escape to live the life we were supposed to live, the life we are living now. We would be saved and as it is always in matters of salvation, we know this as a matter of perfect pristine faith.
Why? The truth is plain:
We were not born to be niggers.
At the end of the original post, Forbes editors have added links to several reactions that have appeared on the web. They are all worth reading, and not just because they rip Gene Marks a new one.
Update: There is also now a most excellent meme on Tumblr: http://ifiwasapoorblackkid.com/.