"I was born a poor black child"

Sometimes I’m grateful that my attention span is equivalent to that of a golden retriever. It leads me places I never expected to go. Today, I was reading about legal issues involving lawyers accessing sensitive information from their iPads, smartphones, etc and I got sidetracked, thus stumbling on this gem of an opinion piece from Gene Marks in Forbes.

Marks spends two pages talking about how he’s a lucky white man in his mid-40s, reaping the benefits of his white privilege, and then he decides to posit that black kids from the inner cities are going to be fine if they just learn how to read, and learn how to write code, and somehow stumble on the right answers and the right direction. 
He gets points for freely admitting that it’s circumstance that places kids on such separate paths from birth – the circumstances of color and economic standing. But he fails so hard at realizing that what he’s trying to get across – this idea of the self-made man, the epitome of the American Dream – is just that, a pipe dream. 
He starts out just fine here:

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.
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.

But that’s also where he starts to go wrong. Sort of. I’m not wowed by the fact that of course it’s the poor black kids in these inner-city neighborhoods – I realize that to make his point he has to give an example that’s stereotypical enough to make sense to a wide variety of readers, but then again, he’s just reinforcing the lack of expectations that we have for our black citizens. He’s unintentionally setting “poor black kids” up for failure based solely on their color. This annoys me – there are a ton of white kids who come from wealthy neighborhoods who somehow manage to never make anything of themselves, just as there are a ton of kids of all colors who do the same. Just like there are a ton of motivated, successful, intelligent people who come from diverse backgrounds. 
But his article ends without ever really exploring the real obstacles to success.  Marks completely ignores entire segments of life that can’t be forgotten when trying to figure out why inner-city kids are so screwed. 

President Obama was right in his speech last week.  The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality.   It’s ignorance.  So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.  Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home.  Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it.  Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.
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.

Marks touches on the sociological impact that the neighborhoods these kids are growing up in has on them, but he doesn’t explore it, and that’s where I find the most fault with this article. He’s looking at his “poor black kid” self without realizing that there’s a lot more to it than desire. There’s a lot more to it than drive, than ignorance. I mean, yeah, not knowing what’s out there can really hurt you. But Skype-ing with other students in your school who want to succeed just like you do is a dumb suggestion.

That’s never going to fly. Why is that? Because of the expectations of masculinity that we place on our boys. We’ve been hearing all about how black men are falling behind black women as black women become more and more educated; we hear about the decline of the black family, caused by the decline in marriage. We put this on the black women, some of whom don’t want to marry a black man based on the fact that she’s out-earning him and that she’s far more successful. We have completely forgotten about our black men. We don’t want them to be super nerdy, we don’t want them to be thugs, we don’t value them if they don’t conform to the white elite’s expectations of what a black man should be.

But all of that starts at a much younger age. These black kids – who grow up to be black men – are receiving mixed messages. They’re watching the glorification of gangsters in pop music, in pop culture, in movies and tv shows. They’re watching their friends and relatives go to prison (the odds are that 1 in 5 that a black man will go to prison at some point in his life). But more than that is the fact that to fit in and thrive in this social environment – the entirely socially constructed idea of “black”, they must mirror the actions and behaviors of their peers as a way to earn respect. This is where the problem of black being equal to ghetto becomes problematic. There is no need for such associations, and yet we all make them. And kids grow up thinking that to own their identity is to engage is behaviors that correspond with the perceptions of what that identity is.

White people – men, specifically – don’t have to work for that respect as hard because they have it. Their power is less tangible. It’s in their jobs. It’s in their suits. It’s in their bank accounts. But for a black man, one who is going to be targeted and profiled by police and just about everyone he’ll meet in his life, power and respect have to be earned in a more physical way. This is where the violence begins. To be super brainy and black in an inner city school isn’t going to make you friends. And the kind of bullying that goes on there is much different than the kind of bullying we are seeing at upper-class white middle schools.

Kids who are smart and well-read are still going to fall through the cracks, even if they have the support systems that Marks assumes they lack. He’s correct in bringing up that they may not have the family backing – but he seems to be negating the importance of familial expectations and involvement. There is no way that a 10 year old kid who has to make sure his siblings have dinner, get baths, and get into bed on time is going to have time to seek out extracurricular scholastic help. And he’s not going to find leadership and mentors through sports programs – the gear and economic involvement required to be a part of the team can’t possibly be met by a struggling family.

So let’s not assume that Skype, EverNote, etc. are going to be the tools that launch this hypothetical “poor black” Marks into the 1%. He talks about private school scholarships and how black kids just need to get on the internet and let these elite school boards know how they can improve the appearance of diversity for only the cost of reduced tuition. Wow. Let’s talk about devaluing personhood for a second.
No poor black kid should have the self-awareness to use that angle. No kid should have to use their skin color as a bargaining chip. By doing so, they are saying that they are not worth the same amount that those rich white kids are. That’s already the message that the white elite is hammering home, let’s not force kids to have to de-value themselves in order to get a better education.

We haven’t even covered college yet. But wait, Marks does. Just for a second.

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.

Oh, how could we have forgotten? Financial aid. The magical salve that heals all and makes dreams come true. I’m calling shenanigans. Financial aid and programs aren’t going to send you to the Ivy League school of your dreams, the ones those “poor black kids” might be reading about on their low-cost computers that they manged to buy (how, again?). Even if you end up at your local community college, your success is in no way guaranteed. Financial aid only gets you so far. And then you have travel expenses. And then you have books. And pens. And those stupid class projects that require the purchasing of dumb materials. And then there’s eating. And oh, wait, not again – that whole fitting in thing. Being a poor kid at a rich school is not a cakewalk.

Having a college degree doesn’t make you successful. Wanting something better for yourself doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find it. Yeah, the dream is alive. But that doesn’t meant that we should assume that it’s attainable. It’s not just as simple as, “Oh, I want to go to college and learn stuff so I can get a great job!” and pow! Holy shit, that’s one successful middle-aged black dude right there.

There’s a lot more to it. Being white and assuming that everyone will be afforded the same luxuries as you isn’t helping anything. Being white and segregating isn’t helping either. You’re putting black kids into a box that it’s really hard to get out of. You’re making nasty assumptions. You’re fostering racist attitudes that have perpetuated social and racial problems in the US for too long.

This isn’t about the 1%, or the American Dream. This is a sad excuse for technology-based journalism.

(By the way, most of the commenters didn’t take too kindly to the article either.)

Source: Forbes 


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