Gene Marks’ “If I Was A Poor Black Kid” has been getting widely trashed around the intertoobz for its shameless display of white privilege and jaw-dropping ignorance about what actually being a poor black kid is like. You can read numerous takedowns of this and they’re all good. Smarty P. Jones’ response is an excellent one, as is Jeff Yang’s “If I Were A Rich White Dude.” Both pieces address the essential fact that poor black kids have a hell of a lot on their plate before they even get to the issue of doing well in school and both are worth reading.
But my problem with Gene Marks’ drivel isn’t that it’s privileged. My problem is that his underlying argument is simply morally abhorrent.
Gene Marks barely concedes at the beginning of his screed that poor black kids have it tougher than, say, middle-class white kids. What is Marks’ solution to this problem? Ah ha, that’s a trick question because so far as Gene Marks is concerned, there is no problem:
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.
Marks then goes on to describe how poor black kids can should just get ahead with Technology ™ and how you can get a cheap computer or a free one even (from generous accountants!). And this is of course its own brand of stupid, ignoring the basic truth that a kid isn’t gonna know how to buy a cheapo computer at the age of eight much less be able to afford one.1 But he soon comes back to reaffirm the idea that the way things are is merely a minor setback.
In Philadelphia, there are nationally recognized magnet schools like Central, Girls High and Masterman. These schools are free. But they are hard to get in to. You need good grades and good test scores. And there are also other good magnet and charter schools in the city. You also need good grades to get into those. In a school system that is so broken these are bright spots. Getting into one of these schools opens up a world of opportunities. More than 90% of the kids that go to Central go on to college. I would use the internet to research each one of these schools so I could find out how I could be admitted. I would find out the names of the admissions people and go to meet with them. If I was a poor black kid I would make it my goal to get into one of these schools.
And if not – then what? “Tough luck, kid – we know you wanted to go to a good school, but it turns out there was at least one more kid than you who was just too qualified to pass up. I bet you’re wishing you spent more time on math so you didn’t only get an A-minus in it three years ago, huh?” No, wait, Gene Marks has you covered too!
Or even a private school. 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.
You know, it’s not often I say this any more, but what the fucking fuck.
His next answer is private school. Really. Look, I know from private school tuition assistance. More often than not, they’re willing to help out. But for those students who have nothing? The competition for those plum spots is insanely tight and makes the magnet school spot competition (which is already crazily intense) look like a relaxing garden party.2
It continues in that vein, of course. If you can’t go to a magnet school or a private school you can work with your school’s guidance counsellor. You can always learn to code software (and I have plenty of friends who work in software and I will say, straight up, that the idea of coding as a universal panacea to aid all social mobility problems is wildly overrated whether it is coming from Stupid McRichdude or Cory Doctorow). In Gene Marks’ world there are always opportunities. I know this because he says so repeatedly, and if a poor black kid has to work harder to get those opportunities, well, maybe that’s not fair, but that’s just how things are.3
And this is where I just throw up my hands because I was not a poor black kid. I was a middle-class white kid, possibly quite like Gene Marks. I did not have to memorize half a dozen pieces of software in order to study or learn skills that would be valuable to future employers instead of sneaking out with my friends to play Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.4 Indeed, I got into an elite private school and got kicked out of it. And I still went to university and got a degree, and then eventually got into law school. Because I was a middle-class white kid, I got to spend my childhood playing rather than working tirelessly to have a decent future. And that’s all right. What isn’t all right is expecting that poor black kids are just going to have to work their asses off to get even a fraction of the opportunities I got.
Everything about Marks’ stupid, stupid essay assumes as unchanging truth that a poor person will have to work ridiculously hard in order to have a future where they are not poor, and this is the root of the problem that Marks not only doesn’t address but asserts is just not that big a deal in his preamble when, after applauding Barack Obama for talking about income inequality, claims that the superrich aren’t getting vastly more than their fair share. Because there’s nothing wrong with expecting someone to work hard to rise above their current status. But there’s plenty wrong with expecting kids to load themselves to the bone with work in order to have a chance to rise above their current status.5 He’s willing to pay lip service to the idea that inequality is wrong, but he’s not willing to suggest that something be done to address the problem of inequality. It’s just another hurdle for poor black kids to jump, and he’s ever so gracious to admit that he, Gene Marks, did not have to jump these hurdles – and that’s just how it is. Tough luck, poor black kids! Those of you who cannot do these incredible and amazing things to struggle upwards, well, there’s always McDonald’s.
In the end, Gene Marks’ prescription for the societal problem of inequality is that individuals be exceptional. But that doesn’t work, because everybody can’t be exceptional. That’s kind of the opposite of what the word means. And that’s why his essay is abhorrent and stupid: because it doesn’t address the problem. Indeed, it’s barely willing to admit the problem exists. His entire idea consists of tinkering around the edges with stale, stupid advice that comes as no surprise to anybody who’s thought even for a second about it,6 and that just isn’t enough.
- Also, some of Marks’ ideas about how Technology ™ can help are kind of stupid. What makes Project Gutenberg better than, say, a public library? [↩]
- And let us not forget that many private school scholarships oddly have a tendency to go to poor kids who are also athletes. [↩]
- It’s worth remembering that in order for a poor black kid to receive all of this useful advice, the poor black kid has to be reading Forbes magazine. You know – as poor black children are wont to do. [↩]
- Granted, I probably should have been getting high instead, but there you go. [↩]
- And even in Marks’ scenarios, he admits you need to be lucky. [↩]
- Did this guy not see Waiting for Superman? I mean, it’s a flawed movie, but at least it makes the point about poor parents being willing to bust ass to get their kids into good schools and failing. [↩]