"If I Was a Black Kid": Grammatically Incorrect Racism at Forbes

Back in 1729, genius author and satirist Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal”—a searing indictment of societal attitudes toward the poor and the ridiculous solutions being offered up to solve poverty. Swift suggested that it made economic sense for poor folks to sell their year-old babies as food "to the persons of quality and fortune" in order to earn money and survive.  

Yesterday when I followed a link over to the Forbes website and began reading Gene Marks’ essay, “If I Was a Poor Black Kid”, I just knew I had to be reading a Swift-style satire—albeit a poorly written, grammatically incorrect one—of the racist, simplistic solutions that are all too common in education reform and society as a whole. Indeed, Marks, who aptly describes himself as a “short, balding and mediocre certified public accountant” offered up a slew of lame Horatio Alger-type remedies for closing the black achievement gap. 

Unfortunately, Marks is like so many other Americans who have bought into the racist mythology that black kids just need to work harder to get ahead. And, his essay, although chock-full of "advice" for poor black kids, is actually not speaking to them. Jay-Z may have had a recent Forbes cover but trust, poor black children are not logging on to Forbes to read Gene Marks.

Instead, Marks is speaking to the Forbes audience: mostly well off, conservative white men who, at a time of racial, social, and economic change—a black president, 25 percent child poverty, and the rise of the "We Are the 99 Percent" movement—are needing reassurance of their place of superiority and privilege in the world.

The superiority Marks must have in order to write, “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,” is stunning. But it's not unusual. In America, we have all had a frustrating conversation with an "I'm not racist. I'm trying to help you people" Gene Marks kind of individual before.

Marks has probably never even been in the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Unless he's done some serious Black Like Me-style research or hung out with someone like Jonathan Kozol, he has no idea what he's talking about.

We shouldn't be shocked. In America, someone who has no clue what's really going on usually has the power to decide what is the appropriate solution for another group of people, all without consulting that group of people.

We must remember that accuracy doesn't really matter for someone like Marks. White privilege means that he is automatically—by virtue of the superiority his skin color offers—correct.

In his essay Marks is simply doing what America has done for centuries: He's holding up the carrot of the American Dream, telling folks to jump up to get it, all the while knowing that their legs are chained to the ground by the racism, oppression, and crippling circumstance they face.  And when they can't reach that carrot, he blames them and tells them they're not trying hard enough.

Marks and others of his ilk desperately want to believe that inequality is a matter of choices. Instead of focusing on how to ensure that all people are treated justly and genuinely have an equal opportunity, he boils it down black people choosing not to take advantage of opportunities.

To really take away any element of human responsibility—his responsibility—Marks suggests that technology is the answer to everything. “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,” he says.

And now, poor black kids, since Mr. Gene Marks, has told you about Google Scholar, you have no excuse for not achieving unless you choose not to do so. You are choosing not to access Google Scholar on your nonexistent home computer with your nonexistent internet.

C'mon, black kids, Marks knows you have a home computer and internet because someone told him this is the case. Somebody call all the researchers who study the digital divide and inform them of this, please.

Marks also says that in case they don't have a computer, all the poor black kids should just buy a computer from the Dell Factory Outlet--seriously--or go to the public library and use all the free technology there. 

It doesn't matter that poor black families don't have several extra hundred dollars sitting around for a new home computer. If they really wanted it, they would save every penny they could to get one. Even if it takes them years to do so. That pervasive attitude is why Marks feels comfortable writing, "Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped."

Marks' inside sources on poor black neighborhoods also neglected to inform him that many public libraries aren't open as much thanks to budget cuts. Public libraries in poor communities of color also don’t get the nice amenities—like multiple computers that actually work—like their counterparts in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Plus, if you're poor and/or black the library staff may be likely to make certain assumptions about you, be reluctant to help you, or be downright rude to you, particularly if you're a powerless child. 

But remember, black kids don't access all the resources Marks has helpfully laid out for them because they're lazy and don't want to be helped.  

Then Marks started in on how black kids need to research the best magnet and charter schools for themselves to attend. "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."

Oh really? Marks should talk to some of my peers, college educated parents of all backgrounds who have spent the past few months trying to figure out the LAUSD magnet process so we can get our children into a decent middle school. I'm sure the average poor black kid can do what we've done—spend countless months calling people, calling them back, leaving messages, driving all over the city visiting schools—even if it's like having a part time job.

If a poor black kid isn't able to do that, according to Marks, that's their choice. They had the chance to hustle and jump through a million hoops and they chose not to. They didn't want to be helped. They must not really want to succeed—unlike all the hustling white children who roll out of bed and walk 10 minutes through their safe, tree-lined neighborhood to attend their excellent neighborhood school. 

But say the stars align and that one poor black kid who really cares about her future somehow manages to get into an excellent school. According to Marks, the first thing she should do is march straight to the guidance counselor and become BFFs with her.

"This is the person who will one day help me go to a college," says Marks, taking on his Sybil-like personality of a poor black kid in a middle-age white man's body. "This is the person who knows everything there is to know about financial aid, grants, minority programs and the like. This is the person who may also know of job programs and co-op learning opportunities that I could participate in. This is the person who could help me get summer employment at a law firm or a business owned by the 1% where I could meet people and show off my stuff."

Except, Mr. Marks, the guidance counselor might look at you, a poor black kid, like she hates you. She might deliberately not tell you about any of those opportunities. She might suggest that instead of going to college, being an AUTO MECHANIC is a good career option for someone like you, a black kid who's taking all honors and AP classes and has stellar SAT scores. 

At least, that's what my high school guidance counselor did. I'm sure no other excellent black student in America has ever had a similar experience, because racism has nothing to do with anything. It's how hard you try. Right, Mr. Marks? 

Marks' audience wants to hear that "the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance." And now poor black people—and Latinos, and anyone else who's not a Forbes reader—have been informed. It's up to them to follow through on the information, no matter if it takes a Herculean effort to do so. That's why Marks wrote, "the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it."

For racists, opportunity must always rely on so-called intelligence. We've heard the black people aren't as intelligent lie for centuries. Facts don't really matter in a racist system that relies on the illusion of equal access and Marks knows that.

But if Marks was at all interested in the truth, he'd recognize that black people have only survived for centuries in this country because we are smart and hard working. Without our entrepreneurial spirit and culture of perseverance, we would never have gotten this far. We are not the problem.

Back when I was a young school teacher I always told my students, many of whom were poor and black, that although I expected excellence from them and wanted them to learn to read and write on or above grade level, neither of those things were the most important things in life. After all, Hitler knew how to do both. Hitler even wrote a book and plenty of people bought it.

Instead, I told my students that the most important thing was that they learn to read, write, do math, critically think, and independently investigate the truth so that they could further equality and justice in the world.

Marks makes me glad that I gave my students that advice. He is proof that any insidious fool can slap together some sentences to justify their inherent sense of superiority. And clearly, they can get published in a well-respected, mainstream magazine (who is now profiting from all the traffic being driven to their site.)

Marks is even defending himself in the comments section, sharing examples he's found of children who "don’t seem to have any problem understanding the importance of an education" and "have such a good outlook on life and want to work hard to succeed with limited resources."

His stubborn refusal to admit he is wrong doesn't mean that the rest of us have to stand idly by and let lies go unchecked and unchallenged. We all have to step up, take action in our communities, and be the advocates for poor black children—for all children—that people like Marks don't want to be.

Photo untitled by John Steven Fernandez on Flickr.


Sholeh said…
great post. You've said it all. When I heard about this, I was just...baffled. At his temerity, ignorance, and thoughtlessness. Absolutely crazy.
Suebob said…
He could have written a one-line article:

If I were a poor black kid, Forbes wouldn't publish my article no matter how compelling it was.
Phyllis said…
Thanks for this! My son is the technology coordinator in a black, inner city school that has recently received substantial funding for computers in the classrooms.
Even when the equipment is easily accessible and the teachers are enthusiastic and well-trained in its use, there are still many obstacles that need to be overcome for that technology to truly serve the students' advancement. The kids are struggling to dig their way up through layer upon layer of oppression, disempowerment, the effects of generations of poverty,
and our of society's low expectations. Addressing these injustices needs to be given the same priority as providing the computers, otherwise the outcomes will be limited.

Have you seen the article at Colorlines?
Bronwyn said…
You just wrote the blog I was going to write. I think I'll just link to yours!!
CallMeSu said…
I learned alot about the veil of equality in this country in my sociology class. This is a perfect example of it.
nick said…
Well spoken, Liz. These pampered, privileged, patronising white guys (and women) are so ignorant about the everyday reality for people outside their narrow circle they really should keep their mouths firmly shut and try listening to those who're better informed.
Anonymous said…
I grew up the child of white parents, none of whom had a lot of money and none who had a college education. I had to do exactly the same as the forbes magazine suggested: study like heck to get a scholarship. Now I live in a homogenous country where all immigrants are discriminated against, and my children are also labeled as immigrants and thus reading disabilities are dismissed as "all immigrant children do poor in school because they have immigrant parents who don't know how to think" etc etc. So I feel everyday how it is to be a minority. I HAVE to work 10 times harder than a nonimmigrant to get a job, to maintain it, etc. And the only chance my kids have is for me to FIGHT for them. And in the end that is probably the only chance any discriminated-against children have: to have at least one parent who will FIGHT for them.

Discrimination is nothing new, and whereever it occurs, whether due to race, origin, sex, etc, the only thing that will really help a child overcome it is someone who believes in them and is willing to FIGHT for them.
Liz Dwyer said…
It's killing me that he is just going wild in the comments section at Forbes, digging his heels in and insisting that his view is correct. It's true blindness.

TRUTH! What will also be interesting to see is if Forbes allows him to contribute moving forward.

Absolutely. Technology is not a magic wand that can instantly fix all of the institutional and attitudinal layers of racism. Thanks for the tip on the Colorlines article, too. Appreciated.

You should go on ahead and write yours, too. Mr. Marks expressed himself, and I think every voice possible should rise up and drown out his opinion.

Call Me Su,
It truly is a veil of equality. And what's really sad is that there are PLENTY of Gene Marks-types in the world. He is not alone in his views.

Marks' beliefs represent a kind of patronizing, racist privilege that is just the worst. Really, I don't think it will be quashed until other white people rise up against it. Otherwise, people of color are just seen as being complainers.
Liz Dwyer said…
True, no one comes up and makes it on their own. Some adult stepping up and opening doors and advocating for a child is what makes it happen, not plugging in a computer or anything else.
Mel said…
When I first heard about the Gene Marks' article, I ignored it because I refuse to read about another white person's confused interpretation of the world. I wish he would reveal his research process so that I could understand where he came up with this and how a business man could be so confused about socioeconomic status in the United States.

He should write a letter to all of his educators (from start to finish) apologizing for failing and shaming them miserably. I cannot fault him for being confused, I can only fault him for faulty research. He has zero references and just off the wall statements. I can't even...
Anonymous said…
This is a perfect rebuttal. More people should read it. Marks was right about one thing: "Ignorance" is a challenge. The ignorance that most people have about what really contributes and causes poverty in this country. About real racisim and injustice that exists, institutional racism. I am so tired of so many of the white people I know who think people are just "being too sensitive" and should "stop making it about race," and just turn a blind eye to exactly what it is.

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