Gene Marks, you wrote an essay for Forbes that has gotten a lot of people rather upset. People are upset because you display insensitive unchecked privilege and, essentially, you blame an entire class of people as the victims of what is mostly not their fault but rather, your fault and the fault of the modal Forbes reader, as well as society more broadly, history, culture, economics, racism and all sort of other things that are largely beyond the control of the Poor Black Kids of the Inner City of whom you write.
I think you meant well, but you did not do well. There are many ways in which you display a marked lack of a clue about your topic. How so? Let’s start at the beginning of your essay:
You referred to the “Inner City” when speaking about the “Poor Black Kids.” Nice.
And when I say “Nice” I am being sarcastic.
The equation of “The Inner City” with “Poor” and “Black” is a common thing. It is not entirely incorrect, but it is enough of an oversimplification and it leaves out enough important information that people who write stuff should learn to avoid the term unless they really know what they are doing, and really mean to use it. If you are not sure how this works, go to your “Inner City.” Find a local neighborhood association office or community center. Find the people who work there, who hang out there, who make use of the facility. Explain to them that you are from the suburbs and have a question for them. That should get their attention.
Then ask them “Where exactly is the ‘inner city’? Am I in it now? Where are its boundaries and who lives in it?”
If you find someone tolerant enough of your cluelessness to have a conversation with you, and don’t be surprised if you don’t, listen to what they have to say. You’ll learn something about your neighbors, about the people who share a local economy, a local society, perhaps a Congressional District, with you. I’m not going to tell you what you’ve got wrong in using this term because it depends on which “Inner City” you live “Outside” of. I don’t know your neighborhood. Any better than you do, I’m guessing.
You make good points about misfortune and skin color and racism. I think those are the main points of your article, and thank you for writing that. Your audience is mostly “Outer City” (if I may twist a phrase) pinkish of skin and upper class. (Forbes is not a Middle Class mag and you are not writing for a Middle Class audience, just in case you were wondering). It is good to remind them of these things and good on you for doing that.
Then you say, “…. 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.”
I’m sorry, but yes it does. Do you honesty believe that the vast, vast majority of wealth can be concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of people and there be any real opportunities left for any of “them?” Seriously? I was born in a transitional family, moving from working to middle class. I have a PhD from Harvard. My wife is a Union member and a teacher. We sleep in the living room because we do not have enough room in our small house, it’s value has dropped so low that we can’t sell it for even half as much as we owe on it, I was laid off and have not been able to get a real job in two years. I’m a little short on opportunities. Do you think the Po Black Kids of the Inner City nave any opportunities at all if my Middle Class ass is in this state? I’m sorry, but you need to get a clue.
You continue with “…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.”
I’ve got to tell you this right away. Using that extra dramatic punctuation does not get you off the hook. It. Does. Not. Using the extra dramatic punctuation and pointing out what year it is does not magically create opportunities that were closed off by the greed of typical “Forbes” readers, of your friends and relatives, of you, of those you represent. Nice try. Nice. Try. But. No.
Then you say “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.”
Good idea. Do you happen to know what the number one determinant of reading ability of a child in the US is? No, you don’t because you are telling the Po Black Kids that they just need to make it their #1 priority. The number 1 determinant is some combination of what sociologists call “home environment” and “parent’s education.” You are unaware of this (clearly) but the culture of being a great reader is not something a kid wakes up one day and adopts because some white-ass honkey writing for Forbes magazine suggests that he makes it number one priority.
“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.”
There you go with your “inner city” again. And even the worst have their best? What does that mean? Now you are talking about the 1% again.
Do you know what the number one determinant of getting into a better than average college is? No, you don’t. It is not getting good grades in an “inner city school.” It is whether or not your parents went to a better than average college. You are absolutely correct to encourage kids in “Inner City Schools” to do their best in school, but your expectations are utterly ridiculous. Let me tell you why by giving you an example. From the inner city. In the early 2000’s, not 2011. But still.
I know these two kids, black, live in the inner city. I was dating their mom. They were smart, like you. They tried hard to get good grades. Every time they spent an entire semester straight without anything disrupting their work they got mostly A’s in the Inner City Public School they went to. But, they were, after all, black and living in the inner city. This meant that if they went outside and hung around they would get rousted. Walking down the street, hanging out somewhere, they would get pulled in by the cops, checked for ID, if it happened to be after their curfew locked up for the night. Neither of them through their high school years was ever charged or convicted of an actual crime. This is because despite wearing the skin of a criminal and living in the denizen of the criminals (did I mention that they were black kids living in the inner city?) they were not actually criminals. But, if you live there, and you look like them, you still get harassed, jailed, and eventually getting picked up the cops enough times will land you on probation. And then things get worse. Eventually you spend time in Juvenile detention. One of these kids ended up in Juvi while the other one didn’t. That’s when their grades started to diverge. The one that ended up in detention ended up later on parole and was required to go to college classes on a certain bus at a certain time and return home at a certain time. Remember, this kid never did anything worse than being out a little after curfew a few times and being black. His mom had a college degree and there was a good home environment, the kind that produced kid with higher academic skills. By the time the older kid was in his second year of college and the younger kid just getting out of high school, trying very very hard their whole lives to do all the things you are telling them to do, they both had criminal records, and one of them had a C average at National American University and the other virtually no prospects of college at all.
Oh, and did you notice the price of tuition?
“And I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers …”
Oh, good. You know a few school teachers. Unfortunately, what you are doing here in this essay of yours is prescribing an entire lifeway to a bunch of people of whom you know nothing, and more than a little implying that their own lack of success is because they did not prioritize correctly, which amounts to blaming the victim, and you are basing a key part of your prescription to life on the fact that you know a few 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.”
Much of this may be true. Certainly, libraries often do have computers and kids can have access to those computers. And so on and so forth.
But, again, we need a reality check. There are three things you need to know.
First, the Po Black Kids in the inner city already knew this. If you have ever gone to an inner city library you would know that they know it. If you go to the library in the inner city before it opens on the weekends you’ll see this line of Po Black Kids outside and around the block, regardless of weather, waiting to get into the library. There, they are herded into waiting areas by the library staff and eventually given access to the computers, several at once, for limited periods of time.
Reality one: They know this and are doing it. Reality two: The 1%, in all their wisdom, have worked the system so that libraries around the country are generally closing, not expanding. The anti-tax lobby has shut down library after library. There is more and more need for what you are telling the Po Black Kids to make use of, and less and less of those resources to go around.
And Reality three: They have been using the free technology all along, and it has helped, but it is not enough.
“I would also, 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.”
Do you know that the teachers in the school YOUR kids go to forbid them from using secondary sources like Wikipedia for most of their research, and that private high schools and better funded libraries have actual reference librarians and resources that make things like the CIA World Factbook only a small and fairly insignificant part of the overall material available to students?
Yes, all the online and electronic resources you suggest are great ideas. I’m pretty sure, though, that virtually every kid in the country already knows about what is out there, and most are already using them. I think perhaps you have misidentified the problem.
“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 do not know the Philadelphia school system, but from what you are saying here there may be a structural problem that is common in US cities. A very bad (mainly because it is badly funded) school system does not produce the students who are then eligible for selection for those high end, merit-based schools.
“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.’
Our nearest private school has a scholarship program. I had occasion to look into it, because I knew this poor kid who was so academically talented that her teachers insisted that she go to this school. A former dean from the school wrote a recommendation for this kid, but without funding from a scholarship it would be impossible. It turns out, however, that the best they ever do is to cut a year’s fees by about 30%, and that is only for a few students, so this “school for the 1%” still costs about the same as a private college, after the scholarship is applied.
No, you see, the 1% don’t really want those Po Black Kids from the Inner City in their schools. There are scholarship programs. Some schools even claim that 80% (or some other large number) of students get financial help. But, if you look at the numbers, either a very very small number of kids get enough help to make it possible for a Po Black kid of the inner city to go, or it is spread out so almost every student gets something, but every student has to pay far more than even a middle class family can afford without a loan.
In short, it isn’t really true that the Po Black Kids you are trying to help here can go to prep school. Duh.
“Trust me, they want to show diversity. They want to show smiling, smart kids of many different colors and races on their fundraising brochures.”
See, here we go back to the first problem with your essay; You have divided the world into the White Privileged “Middle” (read “Upper”) Class (you and yours) and the Poor Black Kids of the Inner City. Trust me. I can use. Punctuation. Too. There are in fact brown or brownish people who are not poor. These schools get to have their brochures without getting shit on their hands.
“And once admitted to one of these schools the first person I’d introduce myself to would be the school’s guidance counselor. This is the person who will one day help me go to a college.”
No, it isn’t, because you are still a Po Black Kid and college is still not affordable to you.
“If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code. I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online.”
So this Po Black Kid that you’ve elevated to the status of your own kids by sheer will gets to be a programmer? Why not a manager? Why not the owner of a highly successful start-up?
My god, man, do you even have an editor there at Forbes?
“Because a poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part time job and becomes proficient with a technical skill will go to college.”
Keep saying it. And yes, it may be true, sometimes. But generally speaking, all that is happening here is that you are blaming the victim for a failure that you have no small share in causing, a failure in the system, not in personal will or ability. But keep saying that, it will make you feel better, and that, clearly, is the point of this whole essay.
“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.”
Or, as in your case, not so smart but privileged.
“Even the worst have their best”: Forbes’ Gene Marks, the 1%, and the Luxury of Second Chances at Greta Christina’s Blog
Institutional Racism at Motley Talks
Opinion: If I Were a Rich White Dude